Wombats are curious creatures. Chubby and short-legged, the marsupials are unusual even before you consider their unique ability to produce cube-shaped poo.
Now, scientists in the US may have discovered how and why the phenomenon occurs.
Dr Patricia Yang, a fluid hydrodynamics specialist from Georgia Institute of Technology, has a particular interest in studying how blood, food and urine move within animals’ bodies.
She and her colleagues found that wombats’ digestive processes and soft tissue structures produce the unusual shape.
“The first thing that drove me to this is that I have never seen anything this weird in biology. That was a mystery,” said Dr Yang.
“I didn’t even believe it was true at the beginning. I Googled it and saw a lot about cube-shaped wombat poop, but I was sceptical.”
The team began its investigation with the carcasses of wombats that had been euthanised after car collisions in Tasmania, Australia.
They discovered that near the end of a wombat’s intestine the faeces transformed from liquid-like states to solid states made of small separated cubes.
They concluded that the elastic properties of wombats’ intestinal walls allowed for the cube formation – which, they suggest, has evolutionary benefits.
Wombats pile their faeces to mark their territory and to communicate with one another through scent. This is partially because they have quite poor eye sight.
The more prominent a faeces pile is, the more visually distinctive it is to other wombats – and therefore it is very important that their droppings don’t roll away.
Dr Yang said: “We can learn from wombats and hopefully apply this novel method to our manufacturing process. We can understand how to move this stuff in a very efficient way.”
Scott Carver, the Australian counterpart to the US team who acquired the wombat intestinal specimens, said: “There is much general interest from the public, both in Australia and internationally, about how and why wombats create cube-shaped faeces.
“Many ideas, some more entertaining than others, have been put forward to explain this, but until this study nobody had ever investigated the cause.
“This has been a fantastic collaboration which shows the value of interdisciplinary research for making new scientific discoveries.”