What Makes Wombats Produce Cube-Shaped Poop?

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A team of brave scientists have been wondering why wombats, chubby yet cute Australian-native marsupials, produce cube-shaped poop. As such, they are of particular interest among biologists who were wondering why this biological phenomenon occurs. Patricia Yang, a postdoctoral fellow in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology finally has an answer.

Yang is responsible for learning more about the hydrodynamics of fluids, blood, processed food and urine in animals. The cube-shaped poop of wombats encouraged her to learn more about the metabolic and digestive processes of this animal, because nowadays everything seems to need to have a scientific explanation.

She will present her work, along with her team of co-authors, Scott Carver, David Hu and undergraduate student Miles Chan, at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics 71st Annual Meeting which takes place from Nov. 18 to Nov. 20.

“The first thing that drove me to this is that I have never seen anything this weird in biology. That was a mystery,” said Yang in a statement. “I didn’t even believe it was true at the beginning. I Googled it and saw a lot about cube-shaped wombat poop, but I was skeptical.”

Yang and her team studied the digestive systems of wombats that were euthanized after motor vehicle collisions in Tasmania, Australia. The Australian-based biologist and co-author of the study, Carver, provided the wombat intestinal samples.

Studying the insides of the specimen is more than gross to ordinary humans, but the team found that the liquid state of the feces that traveled through the intestine would transit into the solid state as they neared the end of the intestine. The solid state looked like small, separated cubes. The team was quick to determine that the elastic properties of wombats’ intestinal walls are responsible for the cube-shaped poop.

Cubes are shapes that are rare in the natural world, as opposed to sugar cubes, sculptures and architectural shapes that are more than common in the human-built world. Scientists found that wombats are the only animals which can produce cubes naturally by their organs.

“We currently have only two methods to manufacture cubes: We mold it, or we cut it. Now we have this third method,” Yang said. “It would be a cool method to apply to the manufacturing process—how to make a cube with soft tissue instead of just molding it.”

In nature, these animals use their feces to mark their home territory, and use the scent to communicate with one another. Since they have bad eyesight, they place their feces in piles in important places, on rocks, small raises, or beside burrows so that they can recognize each other easier.

The team hopes that this research will help other scientists understand the digestive system of these animals, but also reveal information of soft tissue transportation during the digestion process. As she said in a statement, their research included a lot of mechanical engineering and biology, meaning that the study is equally important in both scientific fields.

“We can learn from wombats and hopefully apply this novel method to our manufacturing process,” Yang said. “We can understand how to move this stuff in a very efficient way.”

“There is much general interest from the public, both in Australia and internationally, about how and why wombats create cube-shaped feces. Many ideas, some more entertaining than others, have been put forward to explain this, but until this study nobody had ever investigated the cause. This has been a fantastic collaboration which shows the value of interdisciplinary research for making new scientific discoveries,” Carver said.


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