From Birth To Maturity

As in all marsupials, a newborn wombat is extremely undeveloped and very small - about the size of a small bean. Birth occurs after a very short gestation period, probably only about 22 days; following its birth the young makes its way to the pouch, where, suckling from its mother, it grows and develops for about eight months. It leaves the pouch permanently at about 10 months of age, but it may still stay with its mother for a further 8-10 months before it is finally independent.

Birth

The birth of a wombat has not, to my knowledge, even been observed, but it undoubtedly is very similar to that of other marsupials. The mother's pouch itself is clean and moist. A dry brown scale, which from time to time exudes from the pouch along with dust and other foreign matter, forming a dark encrustation around the pouch opening, has been wiped away by the mother's tongue. At the time of birth the mother probably adopts the same position as the one she uses when cleaning the pouch opening, that is, sitting on her rump with the hind legs extended forward, so that the cloaca, which is also the opening of the birth canal, is directed slightly upward.

If it follows the pattern of other marsupials, the tiny, pink, newborn animal emerges head first from the birth canal. It is only about 15 millimetres long and weighs about half a gram. Its skin is moist and completely hairless (Plate 14). Although its mouth, front limbs and shoulders are well developed, its eyes, like most of its other organs, are still embryonic. On the front feet, the toes are fanned out and are armed with sharp, curved claws. The neck and chest muscles are also well developed; in marsupials in which birth has been observed the newborn uses these and the front limbs in a series of reflex movements as it moves rapidly from the birth canal towards the pouch. It grasps the mother's fur in its front claws, using the front legs alternately, and its head swings from side to side as it goes. Apart from her previous washing of the pouch opening, the mother makes no attempt to help the newborn to reach the pouch.

The embryo-like wombat probably enters the pouch only a minute or two after birth; in the red kangaroo the journey takes less than five minutes, but the distance is much shorter for the wombat. Shortly afterward it attaches itself to the teat. The newborn's lip are joined at the outer edges so that its mouth is a small open circle; when the small swelling at the tip of the nipple is sucked in, it expands inside the mouth so that the young becomes firmly attached to it - so firmly that any attempt to pull it off will tear the skin around the mouth and make it bleed. It was this bleeding that gave rise to the once widely held belief that marsupials were actually born in the pouch by budding off from the teat.

The pouch itself provides a constantly warm, humid environment for the growing wombat, which, until it is about seven to eight months old, cannot control its own body temperature but relies completely on the mother's body warmth.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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