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12 Wonderful Facts About Wombats

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Don’t let their unassuming exterior fool you. Wombats have plenty of quirks that help them fit right into Australia’s unusual animal kingdom. Here are 12 facts worth knowing about these rotund marsupials from Down Under.

1. THEIR POUCHES FACE BACKWARDS.

Unlike most marsupials, the pouch a wombat uses to carry her young opens towards her rear rather than her face. This distinction allows mother wombats to dig without scooping dirt into her baby’s home. Because wombat bodies are fairly low to the ground, this backward-facing pouch orientation also provides extra protection to the baby, or joey, while the wombat is walking.

2. THEIR MAIN LINE OF DEFENSE IS A TOUGHENED POSTERIOR.

cactusbeetroot via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

When running away from predators like Tasmanian devils and dingos, wombats rely on their super-powered rumps to protect them. Their rear-ends are mostly cartilage, which makes them more resistant to bites and scratches. At the end of a chase, wombats will dive into their burrows and block the entrance with their butts. They’re also capable of using their powerful backs to crush the skulls of intruders against the roofs of their burrows.

3. THERE ARE THREE SPECIES.

They're the Common wombat (Vombatus ursinus), the critically endangered Northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii), and the Southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons).

4. THEY APPEAR IN AN ANCIENT ART WORK.

Depictions of wombats are rarely seen in ancient aboriginal rock art, but one of the exceptions can be found in Australia’s Wollemi National Park. The wombat drawing on the wall of a rock shelter in the area is believed to date back 4000 years.

5. WOMBATS WERE ONCE RHINO-SIZED.

The largest marsupial to roam the earth was a relative of the modern wombat. The diprotodon lived in Australia 2.5 million years ago, and was estimated to weigh around 3 tons and stretch 14 feet from nose to tail. The “mega-wombat” vanished around the same time that tribes of people began appearing on the continent, which has sparked debate surrounding our role in their demise.

6. A GROUP OF WOMBATS IS CALLED A "WISDOM."

Alternative names for a gathering of these pudgy critters include a “mob” or “colony.”

7. THEY’RE FAST WHEN THEY NEED TO BE.

With their stubby legs and stocky bodies, wombats aren’t the most agile-looking creatures on earth. They walk with an awkward little waddle, but when a threatened wombat breaks out into a sprint, they can sustain speeds of 25 miles per hour for 90 seconds at a time. To put that into perspective, Olympic runner Usain Bolt’s top speed was recorded at a little less than 28 miles per hour.

8. THEY LIKE FOOD THAT’S HARD TO DIGEST.

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Wombats enjoy a vegetarian diet of roots, scrubs, grass, and bark. In order to process all that roughage, they have special enzymes in their stomachs that help them break down the tough grub; it takes about two weeks to fully digest a meal. They also have teeth that grow continuously to make up for the constant wear.

9. WOMBAT POOP IS CUBE-SHAPED.

Wombat Poop!

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Wombats have some of the most distinct droppings on earth. They produce 80 to 100 of them a night, and each comes out in a neat, cube-shaped package. Using feces to marking their territory helps wombats to navigate at night via their sense of smell. Instead of pooping in the dirt, wombats prefer to do their business atop surface like rocks or logs where it can be seen. The turd’s unique shape is what keeps it from rolling off and onto the ground.

10. THEY’RE BUILT FOR DIGGING.

Wombats build extensive burrows for themselves, with their underground tunnels sometimes stretching 650 feet in length. Their strong, sturdy feet and long claws help them to clear up to 3 feet of dirt a night.

11. A WOMBAT WAS AN UNOFFICIAL OLYMPIC MASCOT.

When the Olympics came to Sydney in the summer of 2000, a cartoon kookaburra, platypus, and echidna were chosen as the event’s official mascots. There was also “Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat,” a stuffed animal parody mascot created by a Sydney cartoonist for a comedic sports program covering the games. The character was originally created as a criticism of the commercialization of Olympic mascots, but he became so popular with fans that he eventually overshadowed the real thing. At one point, the Australian Olympic Committee tried banning athletes from appearing with the wombat, but their attempts were unsuccessful. A statue of Fatso was erected outside of Sydney’s Stadium Australia following the games, but his popularity turned out to be his downfall—the statue was stolen a few months later.

12. THEY’RE SOLITARY ANIMALS.

Even though wombats sometimes live together in interconnected burrows, they’re generally shy creatures. Male northern hairy nosed wombats live alone, while females can get along well enough to share an underground home.

Sharing a burrow is one thing, but most wombats will still try to avoid their peers when they're on the surface.

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Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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