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]

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

The Cat Sanctuary That Sits Near the Ancient Roman Site Where Julius Caesar Was Murdered

ClaireLucia/iStock via Getty Images Plus
ClaireLucia/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Cats will sleep anywhere—even in ancient ruins. Located in Rome, Colonia Felina di Torre Argentina is a cat sanctuary on the site where conspirators stabbed Julius Caesar 22 times outside the Theatre of Pompey, on March 15 44 BCE. Centuries later, in 1929, Mussolini excavated the area to reveal four temples that are 20 feet below the street level. Today, it’s the oldest open-air spot in Rome.

Bystanders can view the temple complex known as Largo di Torre Argentina from the fenced-off street, but according to Conde Nast Traveler, after a $1.1 million restoration process, the sanctuary will open to tourists in the second half of 2021. For now, the only living things allowed in the sacred area (area sacra) are feral cats.

According to Colonia’s website, they are "the most famous cat sanctuary in Italy” and also the oldest in Rome. Many of the cats fall into the special needs category: Some are disabled, missing part of a paw, or are blind; the special needs and elderly cats live in a walled-off area. Volunteers—a.k.a. gattare, or cat ladies—take good care of them, and some cats are available for adoption.

Atlas Obscura reports that “since the mid-1990s, the population has grown from about 90 to a peak of 250” cats and notes that the sanctuary has a spay/neuter program. From the street, visitors can watch gatti like the three-legged Pioppo and Lladrò—known as “poisonous kitten” because of how angry he was when he got there—sunbathe and sleep under pillars.

It’s unclear if the cats are respecting Caesar or disrespecting the fallen leader. However, a gift shop is open to visitors, and people can donate money toward the cats and/or volunteer.

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