What Wombats Leave Behind

wombat

Wombats are furry marsupials endemic to Australia. (Photo credit: covenant/Shutterstock)

Let’s be honest, poop is kind of gross. It’s not something normally discussed in polite company. Yet, we can all agree it serves a purpose. Beyond the obvious purpose of eliminating wastes, what organisms excrete also can help both human and animal doctors diagnose illnesses and assess the general health of a patient. In the wild, “scat,” as it’s often referred to, has even greater significance. An animal encountering scat can determine quickly the species, sex, age, health, and even sexual maturity of the source that left it. The animal then will know if the source is one it might want to avoid, like a predator, or one it might want to meet, like a potential mate. However a rich source of information poop might be, you might find it hard to believe that the shape it takes can be significant. Well, have you met the wombat?

The wombat is a large, pudgy mammal of the marsupial class native to Australia and its neighboring islands. Like kangaroos and koalas, wombats nurse their underdeveloped young in pouches for months after they’re born. Wombats have powerful claws that they use to dig burrows in grasslands and eucalyptus forests. While some, like the common wombat, live alone in their burrows, other species construct extensive underground burrow networks and live communally. The wombat is nocturnal and comes out at night to feed on bark, grasses, and roots. They live up to their reputation as night owls quite well by often sleeping up to 16 hours a day. Wombats can grow to be nearly 4 ft (119 cm) tall and weigh almost 80 lbs (36 kg). Unlike smaller marsupials, their vegetarian diets can’t supply the energy a typically needed to maintain normal activity. While they sleep, the wombat’s metabolism drops to two-thirds of its normal rate. What this means is that, if the wombat wants its friends and potential mates to know it is around, it better make certain its calling card stays put. This is where its poop comes in to play.

Wombat poop is square, that is, shaped like a cube. This is strange, because herbivore scat, like that of the deer and rabbit, often appears as compact pellets. So, how does the wombat’s scat come to have such a curious shape? It’s because of their very long digestive process. Their slower metabolisms means it takes wombats 14 to 18 days to digest what it eats. The digested matter therefore becomes extremely dry and compact. The wombat’s long digestive tract also helps it absorb most of the food’s nutrients and water. The first portion of their large intestine consists of horizontal ridges that likely mold the poop into its cubic shape. The last portion also is extremely smooth, so the poop maintains this shape when it emerges.

wombat scat

A wombat’s scat is curiously cube-shaped. (Photo credit: Rob Walls/Alamy Stock Photo)

The square shape means that, when the wombat drops its poop on a log or rock, it stays in place. Therefore, even though they stay secluded in their burrows for most of the day, other wombats encountering the poop know exactly where they are. Since a typical wombat deposits 80 to 100 pieces of it a day, it also means that excess wombat poop won’t roll over to neighboring burrows. It certainly wouldn’t be the kind of thing neighbors would want to share.

Recently, wombat poop has even helped jumpstart a city’s failing economy. In Burnie, a city in the northwest corner of the Australian state of Tasmania, a local company had the idea of making novelty paper out of wombat scat. Creative Paper manager Darren Simpson says that, while the production process can be taxing on the senses, the final product has “a nice organic smell.”

“When we are boiling it, it does smell horrific as you can imagine, but once it has been sterilized and rinsed properly there’s no scent left to it. If anything it just gives you a nice organic smell,” Simpson told a reporter from the BBC.

They obtain the “material” for their paper from a single wombat named Nugget who lives in a nearby wildlife park. Each day, his keeper collects his droppings and sends them off to the factory. The paper is a hit with tourists and has eclipsed the company’s other hot item: a paper made from kangaroo poop.

More to Explore
Tasmania’s wombat poo paper a hit
Why is wombat scat shaped like a cube?
Common Wombat

 

This article was originally published on BioZine in March 2016.

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