Ben HaywardJanuary 29th
2021

A collaboration between international scientists has finally answered one of nature’s great mysteries - how do wombats produce their unique cube-shape poo? 

Yep, the answer to this biological puzzle has been revealed after four years of work by scientists in Australia and the US. 

And, according to according to research published in the scientific journal Soft Matter on Thursday, it turns out the cube shape is formed in the wombat’s intestines – not at the point of exit, as previously thought.

Previously, there has been various theories posed including that wombats had a square-shaped anus sphincter, that the faeces get squeezed between the pelvic bones, and even that the creatures may  ‘pat’ the faeces into shape after they deposit them.

Dr Scott Carver, wildlife ecologist at the University of Tasmania and one of the authors of the research paper, said: “There were some wonderfully colourful hypotheses around, but no one had tested it.

“The thing that is striking, how do you produce cubes inside essentially a soft tube?”

A team of researchers in Australia, including head veterinarian at the Taronga zoo, Larry Vogelnest, conducted tests on the tensile strings of the intestines of deceased wombats, while physicists at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US created mathematical models to simulate the production of cubes.

The Australian team discovered big changes in the thickness of muscles inside the intestine, creating two ‘stiffer’ regions and two more flexible regions, meaning that rhythmical contractions within the intestines help form the corners of the cubes.

The histology - along with a CT scan of a live wombat, called Lucy-Lu - led the team to conclude that the changes in muscle thickness, coupled with the drying out of the faecal material in the distol colon, are what produce the distinctive cube shape.

Which leads us to the million dollar question - why? Dr Carver said one theory is that wombats have an incredibly strong sense of smell, and so use the faeces to communicate with each other - and that the cube shape helps prevent it from rolling away, with researchers finding that cube-shaped faeces on an eight degree slope rolled far less than spherical-shaped models.

Dr Vogelnest said: “This was one of the more unusual research [projects] Taronga has been involved in, a bit quirky, but it does answer a very significant question, one that a lot of people ask.”

However, the discovery could actually prove to have some real world uses, with Dr Carver saying that the discovery could lead to new ways of manufacturing cubes inside a soft tube, that could be applied to other fields including manufacturing, clinical pathology and digestive health.

Thanks wombats! 

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