, Volume 162, Issue 6, pp 552-560

Digestive tract morphology and digestion in the wombats (Marsupialia: Vombatidae)

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Summary

Wombats consume grasses and sedges which are often highly fibrous. The morphology of the digestive tract and the sequence of digestion were studied in two species of wombats from contrasting habitats: Vombatus ursinus from mesic habitats and Lasiorhinus latifrons from xeric regions. Studies were performed on wild wombats consuming their natural winter diets, and on captive wombats fed a high-fibre pelleted straw diet. Vombatus had a shorter digestive tract (9.2 vs 12.5 times body length) of greater capacity (wet contents 17.9 vs 13.7% body weight) than Lasiorhinus. The most capacious region of the digestive tract was the proximal colon (62–79% of contents). The proportional length and surface area of the proximal colon were greater in Vombatus, but those of the distal colon were greater in Lasiorhinus. These digestive morphologies may reflect adaptations for greater capacity and longer retention of digesta in Vombatus, but greater absorption and lower faecal water loss in Lasiorhinus. Apparent digestion along the digestive tract was estimated by reference to lignin. The proximal colon was the principal site of fibre and dry matter digestion, whereas nitrogen was mainly digested in the small intestine. Depot fats in captive wombats were highly unsaturated and reflected those in the diet. Therefore, lipids, proteins and soluble carbohydrates in the plant cell contents were digested and absorbed in the stomach and small intestine. Conversely, dietary fibre was probably retained and digested by microbial fermentation along the proximal colon.