Wombat walking in Wilsons Promontory National Park, Victoria © Chris Farrell Nature Photography / WWF-Australia

Wombat walking in Wilsons Promontory National Park, Victoria © Chris Farrell Nature Photography / WWF-Australia

The secrets scat keeps: Scat Chat episode three rundown

20 Sep 2022

Keywords
  • wombats
  • biodiversity
  • threatened species
Scat Chat with WWF-Australia, hosted by me, Carlo Ritchie. Every episode of Scat Chat with WWF I get to the bottom of all the things that animal scat - or poo - can teach us about the animals that made it. Listen now for free at wwf.org.au/scatchat.

Scat Chat body image

Picasso, Gris, Cezanne. They’re all great, but if you want to meet a real cubist, you need to meet… the wombat.

 

In episode three of the new podcast, Scat Chat with WWF, I chew the fat and chat the scat with WWF-Australia’s Threatened Species and Climate Adaption Ecologist, Dr Kita Ashman. I learn about wombat-powered recovery research, how wombats make landscapes more climate resilient, and why exactly their scat is like a number to the power of three… cubed.

 

But before I could learn about any of this, I first had to learn about what a wombat even was. I initially thought they were a type of bat. That was either quite wom-like, or that, rather than eating fruit, or drinking blood, exclusively ate woms.

 

How wom I was! As Dr Ashman explained, “They’re like this little block, really solid looking animal. Super cute, very furry, medium brown kind of coloured. Big head and they're herbivorous, so they eat leaves and grass… and their poo is pretty unique because it's cubed.”

 

One of the chunkier creatures to call Australia home, the wombat digs and lives in burrows, and most inhabit multiple burrows at any one time. It’s possible to tell which burrow is currently occupied, thanks to a message wombats like to leave by the front door.

 

The message isn’t “BA DOO BEE DOO BAH”, but yes, it is scat.

 

A solitary creature, the wombat uses this scatsignpost to warn off rivals who might consider squatting there. It basically says, “You can’t squat here; I’ve already squatted here. This is the proof.”

 

And I tell ya, with these multiple unoccupied burrows, it’s no wonder there’s a rental crisis in wombat land. But before you start chiding them for their greed, wombats don’t hoard these properties for prosperity; scientists are looking to see if the burrows could be a haven to use during fires or when seeking refuge from predators.

 

Wombats will play a key role in the rewilding of lungtalanana  © 2021 WWF-Aus / Chris Crerar

 

And the idea that wombats guided distressed animals to their burrows during the 2019-20 bushfires was just that, an idea. But it seems there’s a real ecological benefit to these unused abodes. As sensor cameras in the Upper Murray Region in NSW and Victoria revealed; other animals use them, from time to time, to get out of the scorching hot sun, drink the water pooled at their entrances, or to likely escape the heat, smoke and flames of a bushfire. Though, never with the help a wombat version of ‘The Terminator’ saying, “Come with me if you want to live.”

 

They’re much more likely to say, “I’ll be back.” Hence the scat stack they leave at the entrance.

 

According to Dr Kita Ashman, their preference for this method of communication – this ‘scat chat’, if you will – could explain why wombats do these cubic poos. “Wombats …might have developed or evolved this cube-like poo shape to be able to use it as a mark. Because if they're pooing on rocks and logs, and things like that, normal kind of round-poo is more likely to roll away.”

Which gave me the why, but what I really wanted to know was the how.

And I wasn’t alone. For years, no one knew. It was a mystery as big and geometric as the Bermuda Triangle. However, Dr Ashman told me that while a possible explanation had initially begun as a gut feeling, after years of digestion – and research – an answer to that mystery was finally being squeezed out by the scientific community.

 

“Wombats have a certain shaped lower intestine, I believe, that squeezes in a non-uniform way. So, because herbivores typically don't have a very nutritious diet, they're trying to extract all the nutrients they can out of what they eat. And it's in the last, I think 8% of that actual process of the food moving through their intestines when it becomes a solid, that their intestine compresses it and squeezes it and turns it into that cube shape.”

 

Wombat poo © CC BY-SA 2.0 Dey Alexander / Flickr

As the only animal in the world to do square poos, the wombat is a fascinating creature. One we stand to learn a lot from. Dr Ashman explained, “There's a lot of ways in which wombat poo can be used. They’ve started looking at mathematical modelling of the way in which the poo is exactly formed in the gut, using that as a kind of new way to explore ways that we could manufacture things, whether it's building materials or whatever it might be.”

 

“WWF-Australia are collaborating with Charles Sturt University, looking at how wombat burrows might create a more resilient landscape, and whether or not wombat burrows and having wombats in landscapes help wildlife recover after disturbances like bushfires.”

 

Forming part of something called Wombat Powered Recovery, which is designed to look at wombat burrows in a new way, namely, how wombats burrows could help wildlife survive and recover from bushfires. This project has been supported through funding invested through WWF’s Innovate to Regenerate Australia program.

 

An accomplished cubist, housing mogul and OG scat chatter, the wombat may very well hold the key to our future. To learn more about them and, of course, their scat, listen to episode three of WWF’s new podcast, Scat Chat with WWF, and join me, Carlo Ritchie, as I chat to Dr Kita Ashman about the inner workings of a wombat’s intestines, the way other animals use wombat burrows, and the craziest place she’s ever found wombat poo.

 

Listen now on your favourite podcast platform!

Listen on Apple Podcast  Listen on Spotify  Listen on Google podcasts

 

 Or watch the episodes on YouTube.

 

Want to get more involved to help?

 

  • Take care when driving at night so you don’t hit wombats or other animals on the road.
  • Try out WWF’s 'My Backyard' tool to discover what threatened animals live in your area, and how you can help them.
  • If you’ve got an innovative research project or idea for the Wombat Powered Recovery Project, submit it through the Innnovate to Regenerate a website and you could win a grant to help you realise it.

I’m already working on my pitch, a new conservation fundraising initiative. We sell paperweights made from wombat poo. I call them ‘Writer’s Blocks’.

We would like to thank Charles Sturt University and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service for their support of the work mentioned in this episode.

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