The Wombahs of Big Ugly

(Some brief notes by Bill James)

Ask most people about the mammals of our islands, and they will tell you that there is nothing larger than a snark. Few of them have heard of the shy wombahs, and even fewer have seen them, which I believe to be our first introduced mammal.

Map of wombah distributionSince we arrived here, many more feral animals have appeared on the scene: horses, pigs, goats, rabbits, cats, house mice, rats, and cattle,. All of these feral mammals have bred up into plague proportions from time to time, and all have needed serious control measures to keep their numbers down.

The wombah, or "pigmy elephant" of Big Ugly, on the other hand, has never been a threat to the environment. The wombah is but rarely seen by humans, for it is both uncommon and shy. On top of that, it is protectively coloured, and camouflages its resting sites as well. The wombah is a mystery, for nobody is certain how or when it was introduced, or where it came from.

Over the past quarter of a century, I have sought the wombahs out in their haunts, and observed their group behaviour and individual habits. They have never ceased to amaze me and my companions as we have followed them through the wild and desolate conditions which can be encountered almost a kilometre above sea level in the Ugly Ranges, in the sections marked in yellow on the map.


The wombah is a small and rather distant relative of the elephant, but only a long nose which functions as a trunk, its tusks and its grey hide make this relationship apparent. The male wombah is rather smaller than a Shetland pony, and the female is smaller still.

Both sexes have recognisable tusks, but instead of being round in cross-section, the wombah's tusks are flattened and straightened, and the sides of the males' tusks are serrated with bands of extremely hard enamel, wound spirally around the tusk. The huge ears of the tropical elephants help them to cool their massive bulk: in the smaller wombah, the ears are more like those on a Labrador dog.

Equally, the massive feet of the larger elephants are unnecessary, and they have three flattened toes on each foot, each toe ending in a sturdy claw. These feet are equally useful when the wombahs scamper up steep rocky slopes and when they pick their way carefully through the oozing swamps and soft marshy ground in the valley floors of the Ugly Ranges.

Wombah This drawing, found in the papers of Nehemiah Grue, was long thought to have been a fanciful sketch of a rhinoceros. It bears a remarkable resemblance to the modern-day wombahs, and suggests that Grue must have see a wombah while he was in the Ugly Islands.

The pale grey hide of the wombah carries a fine coat of equally grey hair, just thick enough to retain some warmth. This colour helps them to blend in with the large lichen-covered boulders strewn across the ranges. This same neutral colouring also allows them to merge into the mists which are so common in the area, mists which generally reduce the visibility to a hundred metres or less.

When the mists lift, and the moon is full, there can be no more heart-warming sight than a string of ten or twelve wombahs, picking their way deftly, from tussock to tussock, through the treacherous quicksand swamps, known locally, and with good reason, as "sucking swamps".

Each animal in the "string" grasps the prehensile tail of the animal in front, and it also grasps the trunk of the animal behind in its own tail. The string of wombahs is always led by the mature females, with younger members in the middle of the string, and the heavier males at the rear. Their progress is absolutely silent, save for the occasional snap of a dry twig, or the click of careless young wombah's claw on stone, as they reach dry land once again.

With this careful distribution of their strength and knowledge, the wombahs are well-placed to save any members of the string who slip from a tussock into the swamp beneath. It is probably only this intelligent group behaviour which has allowed this small remnant population to survive in such a hostile environment.

During the daytime, the wombahs shelter in caves, or more precisely, under rock overhangs. These overhangs are a natural feature of the local geology, wherever the basement rocks, tilted and eroded tough ancient igneous rocks, meet with the lowest bed of the more recent volcanic rocks above, a massive layer of poorly cemented breccia. The base of the breccia weathers out where it is exposed, forming the overhangs.

The male wombahs use their serrated tusks to saw through saplings, close to the ground, and biting off the tops, they then carry the poles back to the rock overhangs, where the females set them in place. A male can carry quite a large sapling along its side, gripping it with both its trunk and its tail.

On a flat surface, the pole will be carried on the left side in some 85% of all observed cases, but when they traverse a slope, the pole will be carried on the animal's downhill side. When poles need to be carried across the sucking swamps, a team of wombahs will form a string of adults, with two of the middle wombahs carrying the pole between them, instead of linking trunk and tail. This swamp duty is shared equally by adult males and females.

At the overhang, the female wombahs work cooperatively to raise each pole, jamming it into the sand on the floor of the overhang, and against the roof above. All of the wombahs deposit dung just outside the line of poles, and the seeds of creepers in the dung then germinate, allowing plants to climb the poles. This provides a perfectly camouflaged hiding place, and a ready source of food for the herd to use when the weather is bad.

On dry ground, the adult wombahs can carry a significant load of smaller lengths of vegetation, held on the horizontal tusks with the trunk, and another slightly smaller load is grasped in the prehensile tail. Stockpiles are set up where their trails cross the sucking swamps, and the front and back animals of every string can be observed always to carry a load across to the other side. Calves are trained from an early age to carry the material back to the rock shelters from the stockpiles on the cave side of each swamp.

The origins of the wombahs

Opinions are divided on where the wombahs came from, although several authorities claim to see a resemblance to either the "dwarf mammoth" of Siberia (which died out about 4000 BC) or the Stegodon of China, which became extinct in the Pleistocene. There are no known fossil wombahs from the islands, and no truly similar fossils are known from anywhere in Asia, but it is still likely that the first wombahs came from somewhere in eastern Asia.

Several possible entry routes have been suggested: Chinese vessels could have brought them here (ships from China visited northern Australia and possibly the Pacific, around 550 AD, and again around 1292, when a major expedition was sent to Java). The Chinese annals of these two periods have several ambiguous references to such animals, but if the Chinese brought the wombahs here, the question remains: how did they get so far south? And where are the wombahs which must once have been living in China?

The most popular explanation of their arrival is that the wombahs were being carried back to Europe on a Portuguese caravel which was wrecked near Home Bay, somewhere around 1530. A number of relics from this time, including coins and a bottle, have recently been found in a cave on Little Ugly: perhaps this is the source?

Certainly the wombahs were used as pack animals by early settlers during the 19th century, carrying provisions and tools into the area, and small amounts of gold out of the area. It seems likely that the miners gave the animals their name, but we only have one oral authority for that, an old man who lived in the area as a hermit until around 1975. My colleagues and I met him on a number of occasions, and persuaded him to share his knowledge of the wombahs with us.

This old man, known as "Red Johnny", claimed that the name is onomatopoeic, deriving from the noise that these vegetarian animals make when they break wind under water. Whether this is a valid derivation or not, I have been able to verify that they do indeed make just such a noise when they are disporting in pools and streams during the hot nights of midsummer.

While a few people have suggested a 19th century origin for the wombahs in this part of the world, the minutes of the Australian acclimatisation societies make no mention of elephants or of any animal which can not be clearly identified. If they were being introduced to Australia that late, then it must have been by stealth. Which means that it is quite possible that the wombahs were being secretly shipped to Australia when their ship was wrecked in the Ugly Islands.

More importantly, when H.M. Bark Endeavour sailed along the coast of New South Wales in 1770, James Cook sighted Pigeon House Mountain in the southern Budawang Ranges, and gave it its name. Now the mountain in question bears a remarkable resemblance to a human breast, being conical, with a "nipple" of harder rock on top. It is indeed remarkable, unbelievable even, that sailors, who by then had been at sea for quite a while since their visit to Tahiti, should have likened that mountain to a pigeon house.

Cook's telescope was of the sort which produced an inverted image, and a wombah, viewed in silhouette from the right angle, can look remarkably like an upside-down pigeon: when this image was inverted by Cook's telescope, it would obviously resemble a pigeon, the right way up. It follows that Cook must have seen wombahs on the mountain, and that they were in Australia well before any permanent white settlement. And if they were in Australia that early, then probably the wombahs were in the Ugly Islands as well.

Earliest photographs

Original 'Loch Ness monster' photo During the 1930s, this photograph was widely shown in Britain, which was claimed to be the neck and head of the Loch Ness monster. In reality, it was the trunk of a wombah, walking through deep water, and "snorkelling" through its trunk. It is indeed a pity that this act of fraud has robbed us of valuable evidence about the wombah in the early part of this century.

The Loch Ness monster is without a doubt a hoax, perpetrated by people eager to boost their tourist industry, while the wombahs are perhaps the world's rarest mammal at the moment, and certainly one of the most endearing.

If we could identify the place where the "monster" was photographed, we would probably have a vital clue about their origins. Sadly, the "monster" photograph has been cropped in such a way as to preclude our learning any such secrets from it, merely to further a silly hoax. We can only shake our heads at the heartlessness of people who would destroy scientific evidence like this.


The wombahs are superb mimics, and will imitate almost any sound they hear. When they enter heavily wooded areas where liar-birds are common, this can lead to some hilarious interaction between the two species, especially in light mists around dawn, when the echoes are sharper. Ringing telephones, chainsaws, helicopters and car horns are all within their repertoire, suggesting that these sagacious little animals have observed humans, perhaps more closely than humans have been able to observe them. Several of my more irreverent friends have now taken to whistling Henry Mancini's Baby Elephant Walk when they are in the wombahs' home territory, in the hope that the tune will be taken into the wombah's dawn chorus. To date, the wombahs seem to prefer Colonel Bogey.

If they see a human when they are in the open, wombahs freeze on the spot, and sink slowly to the ground, emitting a noise like rolling rocks, but very quietly. If this psychological threat does not deter the intruder, the wombahs will leap up and run silently to the nearest mist or to the edge of a swamp.

Once at the swamp, they form up into a string, and set out across the swamp, trying to lead their pursuers to their doom in the sucking swamps. When we are studying the wombahs, my colleagues and I wear inflatable life vests and trousers, as we feel it is better to look like a muddy Michelin Man than to suffer slow drowning in the sucking swamps.

While the only known herd seems to contain some smaller individuals, it must now be perilously inbred, and further breeding seems to be at a standstill. No matings have ever been seen, no female appears to be carrying young, and the population seems to be aging. To that extent, their life cycle is something of a mystery. Added to this, no dead wombah has ever been seen.

Future studies

Only further careful observation can unravel the truth about the wombahs. We are undertaking some of this work at the moment, extending our studies to a round-the-clock year-long pursuit of the wombahs. Volunteers are now training themselves to walk, carrying fully-erected light grey dome tents, over rough ground, while wearing inflatable suits. With sufficient information, we will then need to consider whether a captive breeding program is justified, but without fresh genetic input from the wombahs' homeland, this may not be feasible. We desperately need to locate their original territory, or other herds, if any exist.

We plan also to enter the sucking swamps during the next serious drought, to see if we can locate the remains of any wombahs which have been lost in the swamp, using ultrasound to probe beneath the surface. Certain signs and tracks, plus changes in the routes followed by the wombahs, suggest that three key sites may be worth careful investigation.

Another exciting breakthrough has arisen from our chance discovery that empty meadberry juice bottles seem to attract wombahs into our camp sites. The reason for this is as yet uncertain, but the sightings around our tents have increased markedly since we started using these "baits".

Once the meadberry juice study group has completed its investigations and identified the brands which are the strongest attractors, we will then use gas chromatography to pin down the attractant molecule(s). This information will further our knowledge of mammalian pheromones, but may also offer a means of studying the wombahs more closely.

The careful reader will note that I have been deliberately vague about the exact location of the wombahs. The herd is small and endangered, and it lives in an area which can be extremely dangerous to those who do not know how to look after themselves in the wild. To be any more specific would be unethical and irresponsible.

While I would regret encouraging people to go into this dangerous area unprepared, I would regret far more any harm falling upon the wombahs. While they are remarkably un-elephant-like elephants, they are the nearest thing we have to a third species of elephant, and because of their size and gentle disposition, they could easily be kidnapped and sold overseas as pets, or exploited for their tusks.

They may be feral animals, but the wombahs seem also to have been here for quite some time, and they are not known, even as fossils, in any other part of the world. We owe it to the wombahs to preserve them, and their habitat, as a small contribution to the world's biodiversity.

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Last revised March 6, 2007.

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