What Animal Is It?
In 1831, an Australian settler named George Fletcher Moore chased a strange animal through a west Australian woodland. It was small and reddish-brown, with white stripes across its hindquarters, a pointed muzzle, and a long bushy tail. The creature was a numbat – the subject of today’s What Animal Is It? – and Moore was the first known European to see one alive. Due to the oddness of the creature, he was unable to ascertain whether it was a species of squirrel, weasel or wild cat. It is, in fact, a marsupial.
Marsupials give birth to live young at an extremely early stage in their development. The gestation period is very short – rarely longer than a month, and in many cases significantly less. A marsupial baby, as soon as it is born, is tiny, pink, and grub-like. Although its hind legs have barely started developing yet, its forelimbs are surprisingly strong and advanced, allowing it to drag itself through the tangle of fur on its mother’s belly to reach her nipples. Once there, this little blob – scarcely more than a mobile embryo – will start drinking.
A female numbat gives birth to four young after just 15 days of pregnancy. The nipples of most marsupials are enclosed within a pouch, which provides protection and a stable environment for the young, but the teats of the numbat are largely exposed. Nonetheless, the tiny, unformed babies latch on to them for a few months, growing larger and developing fur. Eventually, though, this arrangement not only becomes very awkward for the mother, it almost certainly becomes uncomfortable for her growing offspring as well. When they are finally weaned, they are left in a nest or carried around on their mother’s back instead.
The numbat is sometimes called the banded anteater, but this is a poor name because it isn’t closely related to true anteaters (which are placental mammals rather than marsupials) and it doesn’t even like ants – it feeds almost exclusively on termites, which are softer than ants and easier to digest. The numbat has a small, degenerate jaw with up to 52 tiny, virtually non-functional teeth – the most of any marsupial – and although it can chew, it rarely does so because of the soft nature of its diet. The numbat’s excellent sense of smell enables it to find termite mounds, while its long, sticky tongue allows it to hoover up as many as 20,000 termites a day.
I would love to tell you that today’s What Animal Is It? is extremely common and of no cause for concern, but sadly the numbat is under serious threat from habitat loss and introduced predators such as foxes and feral cats. In fact, it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 remain in the wild. But today is Numbat Day – a day to celebrate this unique and endearingly cute little marsupial and to encourage action to protect it.
For more information about the efforts to save the numbat, I recommend visiting the website for Project Numbat, a non-profit, volunteer-run organisation that is heavily involved in conserving this species and spreading awareness of its fight against extinction.