- Wombats are animals endemic to Australia who has cubic feces
- A team studied the intestine that gives this unique excrement
Scientists who studied the Wombat's cubic poop think the digestion process might bring value in digestive health or manufacturing.
The Wombat is a native Australian marsupial known for the unique cubic shape of its poop. This protected species of the same family of Kangaroos is around 1 meter long and 70 centimeters high.
When they are hunted by predators like dingos, they hide in their burrow and block the entrance with their bottom. As a result, their extraordinary strong posterior made of cartilage makes an improvised rampart.
But some scientists got interested in another rear specificity : the square feces.
Their fecal matter is expelled in cubes. And they make plenty of them: between 80 and 100 a day produced after a long week of digestion.
It is assumed those shapes prove useful in remaining grouped and avoiding the excrement to roll down the hills. In effect, wombats live in mountainous forests.
Their presence and the scents would help in communicating between individuals, like marking a territory or attracting mates during the reproduction cycle.
Different levels of flexibility of the intestinal wall
And according to Patricia J. Yang et al., the corners are created in the last 17% of the intestine.
This is where some regions are thicker and more rigid than others. For the research, the scientists partially recreated the process and claim the alternation of fast contractions in stiff regions and slow movements in the more flexible areas would create a cube, in a circular elastic tube with 100,000 contractions over 5 days.
The study was published on January 21th, 2021 in Soft Matter, a journal focused on "interdisciplinary soft matter research".
For this research, the scientists, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, USA and the University of Tasmania, Australia, won the satiric Ig Nobel Prize for Physics, in 2019. This award congratulates the "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think".
The conclusions were first presented in 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Potential in healthcare or biologically inspired engineering
The paper suggests the results may have applications in "manufacturing, clinical pathology, and digestive health".
It could indeed help understand how to create curves and eventually sculpt a cube through movements without cutting or using a mold.
In fact, nature has often been a source of inspiration for various innovations. One of the most famous examples of bionics, or biologically inspired engineering, is the Velcro tape.
The scientists note the dissections occurred to humanly euthanized animals that were hit by vehicules and approved by the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, a conservation, research and environmental education organization.
Media sources and useful links:
- The study: Intestines of non-uniform stiffness mold the corners of wombat feces, Soft Matter, 2021, free log-in access
- 10-minute Youtube video: DON'T WAKE the WOMBAT?!, Brave Wilderness, 2018, free access
- Scientists unravel secret of cube-shaped wombat faeces, The Guardian, 2018, free access
- 71st Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics
- Bionics Wikipedia page