Grooming

Although a wombat often scratches itself, usually only individual parts of the body are groomed at one time. Most mammals groom their coats with meticulous care, and usually they have a long ritual sequence of grooming movements, which they perform regularly, beginning with the face and head and progressing through all the parts of the body: belly, flanks, back, hind legs, genitals and tail. A cat, for instance, always begins a grooming session by washing its face with its licked forearm before attending to the rest of its coat. At other times, if just one particular part of the skin is irritated by an insect or a grass seed or something similar, the cat immediately attends to the irritated area by scratching, licking or biting the fur. A wombat reacts to local irritations by rapid scratching movements or by rubbing hard-to-reach places against a solid object; but unlike other mammals, long grooming sessions in which the whole coat is successively cleaned do not occur. Nevertheless, all the wombats that I have handled have kept themselves extremely clean, which is remarkable considering the relatively narrow passages of their underground homes.

Figure 5.4 When scratching the back, the hind leg is sometimes passed over the shoulder.

A wombat does not lick its fur to clean it, as most mammals do, except for licks and nibbles given periodically by the female to the pouch area; to do this, she has to sit on her rump, hind legs thrust forward in front of her, and bend her body over in an arc.

At certain times in her ovulation cycle the female will pay considerable attention to the pouch opening, which becomes stained with a brown exudation from the pouch. Because of its position, it would be extremely difficult for her to clean inside the pouch by licking, and it is unlikely that this is ever done. However, a female will sometimes lie on her back, relaxing the strong circular muscle at the pouch entrance, and scratch carefully inside the pouch with the long curved claws of the hind foot, or with the small clawless inner toe.

This clawless toe is usually also used when a wombat is cleaning inside the ear. Occasionally, too, the long clawed toes are inserted in the ear and moved carefully and slowly, but when scratching the rest of the body the movements are very rapid. The head, neck and chest are scratched with the hind leg, which is sometimes passed under a raised foreleg and sometimes passed over a shoulder while the wombat is sitting on its rump (Figures 5.4 and 5.5).

Figure 5.5 The hind leg is also passed over the shoulder to scratch the neck.

Illustration: © Peter Schouten

Figure 5.5 The hind leg is also passed over the shoulder to scratch the neck.

Illustration: © Peter Schouten

It may be either sitting or standing when a front paw is used to scratch the lower back, the rump and the belly.

The hind paw is also used to groom the belly area in the same way as the female scratches her pouch: lying on its back, the wombat bends one hind leg up and sideways in order to scratch its belly (Figure 5.6). The male also scratches his scrotum while lying in this position.

The hind paw is also used to scratch the belly area in another position, which is, I think, peculiar to the wombat. Standing on three legs, the wombat bends a hind leg sideways under the body to scratch the lower part of the belly and under the tail. This unique and slightly comical grooming movement is often made after the wombat defecates and before it sets out in search of food.

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