Finally! Scientists Have Figured Out How Wombats Poop Cubes

iStock.com/burroblando
iStock.com/burroblando

The fact that wombats use their poop to mark their territory isn’t unusual in the animal kingdom. What does separate them from their furry peers is the distinctive shape of their droppings. Wombats are the only animals to poop cubes, according to Science News, and researchers think they have finally figured out how they do it.

Mechanical engineers David Hu and Patricia Yang at the Georgia Institute of Technology received a lovely gift of two frozen wombats—roadkill, mind you—from an Australian colleague. After dissecting the specimens, they analyzed the animals’ intestines and discovered that they’re incredibly stretchy. Wombats' intestines expand to two or three times their original width when feces passes through, the researchers reported at an annual meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics in Atlanta.

Wombat dung
Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

To test the elasticity of different sections of intestine, the researchers took skinny balloons (the kind used to make animal shapes) and inflated them inside the organ. Not all of the sections were stretchy, though, and Yang suggested that the stiffer areas might help form the edges of the poo cubes as waste gets pushed through the last few feet of intestine. (Wombat digestive tracts measure about 30 to 40 feet, according to another study of digestion in wombats.)

The final eight percent of the intestine is also where the feces changes from “a liquid-like state into a solid state composed of separated cubes,” each measuring about three-quarters-of-an-inch in length, according to researchers.

The advantage of wombats' oddly-shaped dung, according to Science News, is that they’re better for stacking and they don’t roll off rocks as easily. Wombats tend to produce 80 to 100 turds per night, and they prefer to deposit them atop rocks, logs, and piles of dirt, where they can easily be seen. The smell also helps them navigate better at night.

Although impressive in their own right, wombats aren’t the only animals whose fecal matter seem to defy physics. Take sloths, for instance: A single bowel movement can weigh up to a third of a sloth’s body weight.

[h/t Science News]

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

Forget Therapy Puppies—Michigan State Students Brush Cows to De-Stress for Finals

iStock.com/123ducu
iStock.com/123ducu

As more universities are coming to understand just how stressful the rigors of modern academics can be, many institutions have begun bringing dogs onto campus to soothe anxious students during finals week. At Michigan State University, students have a more unique option to help them de-stress: cow time.

According to Click on Detroit, the recent "Finals Stress mooove on out!" event gave students the chance to brush cows at Michigan State's Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center just south of the school's main campus. For $10, participants spent 30 minutes brushing one of the school's 200 dairy cows, an activity designed to relax both the human and the cow.

Not all students come to college with a working knowledge of large-ruminant etiquette, so MSU farm manager Andrea Meade was on hand to show students what to do, prevent them from accidentally spooking the animals, and answer questions about milking and dairy practices.

Studies have shown that petting dogs can help lower your blood pressure, but dogs aren't the only animals that provide people with a psychological boost. A number of animals have been found to help relax humans (though the effect tends to be greater when it's a familiar animal rather than one the person just met), including cows. One 2011 study in Norway found that after working on a dairy farm for 12 weeks, psychiatric patients showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.

And the cows need to be brushed whether there are students there or not, so the event presented a mutually beneficial situation. Many dairies employ automated brush systems to keep cows clean and stimulate blood flow, keeping them happier and healthier in the process.

You don't need to be a student to enjoy the calming effects of cattle, though. Upstate New York's Mountain Horse Farm's hour-long "cow cuddling" sessions let you pet, brush, and play with new bovine friends for $75.

[h/t Click on Detroit]

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