The industrial potential of wombat poo
An Australian marsupial drops cube-shaped excreta, and that could be useful. Nick Carne reports.
Wombats, the short-legged marsupials native to Australia, are the only mammals known to produce unique cube-shaped poop.
Thanks to new research, scientists now know why and, surprisingly, it could actually be worth knowing – and not just as quirky trivia.
When mechanical engineers and biologists from the US and Australia studied the digestive tracts of wombats euthanised following motor vehicle collisions, they found that near the end of the intestine their faeces changed from liquid-like to solid states made up of small, separated cubes.
They concluded that the varying elastic properties of the wombat’s intestinal walls allow for the cube formation, as Patricia Yang from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US told the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics annual meeting over the weekend.
The assumed reason for needing to do this is that wombats pile faeces to mark their home ranges and communicate with each other. Because they have poor eyesight, the piles need to be prominently and accurately placed. Cube-shaped turds are less likely to roll away than more conventional cylindrical versions.
And the value in knowing this is? Two-fold, Yang suggests.
The first is that the findings will contribute to current understandings of soft tissue transportation, or how the gut moves.
The second, is that they may have application in industry.
“We currently have only two methods to manufacture cubes: we mould it, or we cut it,” she says.
“Now we have this third method. It would be a cool method to apply to the manufacturing process: how to make a cube with soft tissue instead of just moulding it.”