Wombats are forest-dwelling marsupials native to Australia. If their cuddly cuteness wasn’t enough to interest you, their poop might. Unlike every other animal on Earth, wombats poop cubes. Biologists have been confounded for years by the creatures’ oddly-shaped scat. Now, after one of the more bizarre studies of our time, we finally have answers.
An Ecology Lesson
A quintessential part of Australian culture and wildlife, wombats are first depicted in aboriginal Dreamtime, painted on the walls of a cave. The oldest of these depictions date back around 4,000 years and describes the wombat as an animal of little worth. Mainland aboriginal stories claim that the wombat was created when a man was punished for being selfish. A Tasmanian origin story claims that wombats were favored and protected by one of the Great Spirits.
Historically, the wombats’ range was much more extensive than it is today. In the early 1900s, the tiny marsupials were declared to be vermin, and a hunting bounty was placed on them. Their meat was once used in a classic Australian stew, but since protections have been imposed on the remaining population, the delicacy has since waned in popularity. The most significant threat to their survival is human interference and encroachment on their habitat.
Unique Among Their Kind
Marsupials are set apart from other mammals most notably by their pouches. When a marsupial gives birth, the still-developing young remains inside the mother’s pouch, latched to its food source, until it is old enough to move about on its own. The pouch is situated on the front lower part of the mother’s torso, usually opening toward her head. In wombats, the pouch is inverted, opening downward.
Their preferred habitats are forestland, mountainous area, and heathland. They can adapt to different habitats as needed, which is a valuable survival trait, given their current battle for living space with humans. As burrowing creatures, their backward-facing pouch prevents the mother from knocking dirt in on her offspring while digging. Aside from this upside-down pouch, wombats differ from other marsupials, and other mammals in general, by their cube-shaped feces.
Although we still don’t know what the evolutionary purpose of wombats’ cube-shaped poop is, we at least now know how it happens. Scientists recently had the opportunity to dissect and analyze the intestines of a recently-dead wombat who had been euthanized after being hit by a car. Their study revealed that the lower portion of the large intestine was responsible for the molding of the bizarre droppings.
Differences in elasticity in the intestine walls are behind the uniquely geometric specimens. As the fecal matter passes through the lower intestine, its moisture is removed, and the masses begin to take on their signature shape as the walls of the organ stretch to accommodate the shaping of the scat. A single wombat produces between 80 and 100 pieces of poo every night, with each piece being almost an inch in size. Their droppings appear to serve as territory markers and a way to attract a mate.