FlipFact of the Day: Due to the 2020 Australian bushfires, the reclusive marsupials known as wombats have been in the international spotlight. Reports claimed that these solitary animals were “shepherding” other animals into their underground burrows to save them from the raging forest flames. And while the fact that wombats are naturally territorial casts a bit of doubt over the specifics of this heart, er, warming narrative, this other story certainly isn’t a load of dung: Wombats are the only animals known to drop cube-shaped poo—and believe it or not, it took a team of engineers and biologists to figure out why.
After studying wombat innards, researchers in Australia discovered a number of factors that (literally) shape how these cuddly creatures create cube-shaped crap. For starters, it takes 14 to 18 days for a wombat to fully digest its food. As the food goes through the wombat’s lengthy digestive tract, the animal absorbs most of the nutrients and water from it, resulting in “extremely dry and compacted” fecal matter. By the time the feces pass through the final 8% of the intestinal tract, they’re sculpted into cubes due to a combination of pressure and the intestine’s irregular shape (unevenly stretched walls of varying elasticity). The poop then exits the wombat’s body in the form of 80 to 100 two-centimeter cubes every night.
Experts believe that these poop cubes serve at least two purposes: to mark the wombat’s territory, and to help it be found by potential mates (as the scent of the scat can indicate fertility). Their flat sides prevent them from rolling off the rocks and logs where they’re deposited, allowing them to stay in place.
But why are scientists so fascinated with wombat poop? “In the built world, cubic structures are created by extrusion or injection molding, but there are few examples of this feat in nature,” explained the researchers. Understanding exactly how wombats produce cube-shaped poop could help us improve existing manufacturing processes someday.
If wombats could talk, though, they’d probably just tell us that, well, sh*t happens.
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