Why Wombats poo in cubes…

…and other things you didn’t know you needed to know.

An amazing discovery rocked the scientific world yesterday. It wasn’t a cure for cancer or finding life on Mars, or even some kind of cool new robot that will inevitably make humans replaceable. No. It was much more ground-breaking, earth-shaking and life-changing than any of those things.

Turns out…wait for it: scientists have finally figured out why wombats have cube-shaped poo.

Oh, you didn’t know the humble wombat even had cube-shaped poo? Why not? Clearly you don’t spend enough time ruminating on the toileting habits of our favourite adorable marsupial.

Well, apparently, cubic poo is a thing — a rare thing. So rare, in fact, wombats are alone in the animal kingdom when it comes to this faecal fascination.

Scientists have known for a while just why wombats prefer this particular kind of compost: die-shaped poo (apparently) clings better to rocks, logs, tree stumps etc, and is used to mark territory somewhere near the entrance to a burrow. If the droppings are square, they can be stacked on top of each other, tall and proud, like the ultimate, disgusting Jenga, with less chance they’ll fall off and roll away. In other words, it’s so Fatso won’t miss his turn-off when he stumbles home from the pub blottoed at 2am. Or so scientists believe.

You do you, Wombat. You do you.

But while they knew the why, they didn’t know the how. Just how do these cuddly creatures manage to create such perfectly symmetrical poop? Do they, in fact, have square-shaped anuses? Or are there tiny little gamblers sitting up in the wombat digestive tract just throwing down dice, desperately going for a Yahtzee? While it’s hard to believe, more than one scientist cared enough to try to find out. In a report soon to be presented at the American Physical Society’s fluid dynamics division in Georgia, a team of experts from the state’s Institute of Technology, led by Dr Patricia Yang, will conclude that “wombat intestines have periodic stiffness, meaning stiff-soft-stiff-soft, along the circumference to form cubical faeces.” In essence, the intestine deforms to shape wombat poo into 2cm-wide cubes, often hundreds at a time. (Insert your own joke here about Old Man Wombat going too hard on the curry and paying for it the next day.)

How did they figure this out? By fed-exing dead wombats to the US and inflating their intestines with balloons — which is probably not what the wombats had in mind when they ticked the “organ donor” box on their driver’s license before winding up as roadkill on the mean streets of Tasmania. (My guess is they were distracted, transfixed by the awesome poo mound they’d created, like the bloke admiring his roof in the Colorbond ads.)

What does this all mean for the future of mankind? Not a lot…but Dr Yang and co are pretty psyched that people might benefit from their findings when it comes to manufacturing and engineering. Currently, there are only two ways to make a cube: you either mould them or cut them. But the Wombat Way would be “a cool method to apply to the manufacturing process”, Yang reckons. “We can understand how to move stuff in a very efficient way.”

This is where the magic happens.

A research grant well spent? This jury is still out, but as it happens, this study is just the latest of many looking into animals and their dunny habits… In 2013, scientists discovered that when dogs do their business, they naturally align themselves to face either north or south. Why? Apparently, they’re not just pacing up and down the park trying to find the optimum place to take a dump because they’re trying to delay going home, but rather, it’s because our very best friends are particularly sensitive to changes in earth’s magnetic field. Who knew? (Who cared?)

Another team of researchers with too much time on their hands studied penguins in an attempt to calculate the pressure at which they poo. They can confidently report that the Chinstrap and Adelie penguin species let rip at pressures of up to 60 kilopascals (kPa), well above the forces at which we humans drop our packages off to Bondi. They were, however, not able to determine whether the tuxedoed lot choose the direction in which their poo goes flying like a bat outta hell, or whether the wind has something to do with it. Stay tuned.

All of this is to say that the world is a bonkers place and people are fascinated by weird things. If nothing else, these stories remind us that in this day and age, when life can get a bit dark and depressing, everyone — from three-year-old boys in the playground to fancy scientists in a laboratory — can still find joy in the simple things, like talking about poo.

Originally published at thebigsmoke.com.au on November 19, 2018.



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