November 2014

Cube-shaped scats

On holiday recently in Northern New South Wales I stumbled across little piles of square blocks stacked up on top of a log, they seem to be made of grass, are they made by an animal?

Answer

Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) scat Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus)

Yes, these peculiar blocks are produced by the Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) – they are actually the wombats’ scats or poo. The wombat is a solitary animal and marks its territory with scent to ward off other wombats in the area. The scat is a scent-loaded deterrent. The scat is often balanced in prominent places, often on top of rocks or logs. Occasionally, these piles can be stacked like bricks in groups of 4 to 8 scats. A typical spherical or cylindrical scat could easily roll off onto the ground from such a precarious position and get lost in the leaf litter. In the case of the wombat the special cube-like shape with flat sides allows the scat to stay in place, maximising their deterrent effect.  Does the cube shape mean that the wombat has a square sphincter?  Actually no, the wombat produces this shape via its diet and slow metabolism. Wombats graze by night on native grasses and sedges. Digestion takes 14-18 days and at the tail end of the process, almost all the available water is retrieved from the processed gut contents. The end result is an extremely dry scat that snaps off cleanly from the sphincter, resulting in the distinctive cube-shaped poos – about 100 of which are produced each day!

There are three living species of wombat: the Common wombat (Vombatus ursinus), the endangered Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) and the Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons). All three produce cube-shaped scats. 

Establishing the presence of an animal in a particular area is not always easy and even animals as large as wombats can be hard to detect. Many species are nocturnal, cryptic or exist at low population densities. Distinctive clues such as scats can be used to establish the presence of difficult-to-detect species. These clues can also be used to help us understand diet and behaviour.

Identification of scats and other traces is just one of the tools used by scientists at the Queensland Museum to help determine the distribution of some of our native wildlife.

If this Question of the month has piqued your interest in scats then come and discover more on display in one of our Discovery Centre drawers.

 

Queensland Museum's Find out about... is proudly supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation and the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation.