Wombats and their Cube Poop: How Scientists Solved the Mystery
Wombats and their Cube Poop: How Scientists Solved the Mystery

Wombats and their Cube Poop: How Scientists Solved the Mystery

Wombats have a feature that make them unique: the only animal that creates cube-shaped poop. This is the story of how scientists with an unusual background solved this mystery.


I'm here in beautiful Lerderderg in Wombat State Forest. And this is a story about how scientists solved a decades old cube mystery. And it's not this one, but it's actually about Wombats themselves.

This unique Australian animal has one feature that makes them stand out. They're the only animal that poop cubes

So that was a really fun day in Lerderderg, which is a fantastic word to say, and Wombat State Forest. Now I wanted to share the story about wombats and how the scientists did to solve this mystery.

I think it's really fascinating because wombats themselves, they're an amazing little creature and this mystery of their poo has been a really interesting one. I remember growing up as a kid, hearing this fact about it and people not knowing how it actually happened. Scientists think it helps them communicate.

So wombats are solitary creatures they live alone in their burrows and they don't have a very good sense of sight but they do have a good sense of smell. So what the scientists think is that they use this poo to mark their territory. It helps them avoid fights and conflict, and also female wombats can signal how fertile they are due to how much hormones are in the poo. And because it's a square, it doesn't roll away, clever stuff.

The researchers that discovered it when they announced it, it made massive news and the team was awarded with an Ig Nobel Prize, and that's not the Nobel prize, but the Ig Nobel is for research that makes you laugh as well as think, with research including showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows than are nameless. Or discovering that the word "huh", or its equivalent seems to exist in every human language and for not being completely sure why. For the team that won it, this wasn't their first prize.

So for me, I dived into their back catalog. You know when you discover a new artist or musician and you can see all the cool things they've done in the past, well, I did that. The researcher is Patricia Yang and she's done some cool stuff. So the first Ig Nobel Prize that she and her team got was to answer this question, do big animals pee for longer than small animals? Now big animals of course have a bigger bladder, but they've also got bigger pipes. So the way the team did this was they got all these videos of animals urinating. And what they found was that essentially all mammals pee for the same length of time, 21 seconds. So if that's their number one study, they moved on to number two, same idea, do big animals poop for longer than small animals? An elephant faeces is around 20 kilos. So about a thousand times more than a common dog, but yet they found they poop for the same length of time, 12 seconds. They did another research project where they found and actually calculated how much human and animal feces is produced around the world every year.

And they took their expertise to the world of wombats. So the way they did this is they got their hands on two wombats that sadly had been hit by a car and they did some kind of physical analysis.

And what they found is they discarded a couple of hypotheses about how the cube poo might come to be. The square anus theory for example, didn't hold up nor the stomach shaper idea where the cubes were formed inside the stomach.

Now, something you need to know is that wombats eat very dry food, very low moisture content. And also it takes them a long time to digest from one end to the other can be around 14 days, two weeks. It's in the last 8% of the intestine where the magic happens as the faeces goes from a liquid to a solid and the way they discover this was inserting long balloons into the intestines. And as they inflated them, they realised that it didn't inflate uniformly and another animal like a pig that's exactly what happened. In the case of the wombats though, it varied from the corners where it was around 20% through to the edges where it was 75%.

And this was the key. So the way wombats do it is dry food, slow digestion and unusually shaped intestine, which is variably elastic. So why does this matter? Well, it turns out that doing research into weird topics can lead to really practical and useful results. Knowing how long it takes people to pee For example, can help diagnose medical issues.Millions of people each year gets sick due to illnesses caused by open defecation. Knowing how much poo's out there can help us create policy and save lives.

And back to our wombats well, knowing how they live and breed and reproduce can help us preserve their habitat because as beautiful as it is, Wombat State Forest, isn't home to wombats anymore.

Thanks for watching, if you enjoyed that, I'm Julian O'Shea, I make lots of kind of sciency and nerdy videos. If that's your jam, do hit subscribe. If you get a chance to go to Wombat State Forest, I urge you to do so. And if you've never looked up the Ig Nobel Prizes, it's well worth a look at a laugh. Take care.