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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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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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