Have you ever played that game Scattergories and had to think of an animal beginning with “n”? When everyone else sighed and threw “newt” into the ring, losing points for duplication, I always bounded in with “numbat”. If I was feeling especially cheeky, I would stick “Northern Australian” in front of it, and so grab even more points for the extra ‘n’s. And cheeky this was, because this stripy little critter has vanished from everywhere in the country except the south-west.
Pests from the west
An emblem of Western Australia, the “banded anteater” or “walpurti” has the double whammy of only finding termites delicious, and foxes and cats finding it even more delicious. European settlers didn’t only bring over these four-legged foes, but also cleared away woodlands and messed about with wildfires, so being eaten out of house and home, either by flames or literally, has caused the numbat’s numbers to drop below 1,000. This would be bad enough, except it’s the only member of the family Myrmecobiidae, and really doesn’t ask for much when it comes to survival.
All it needs is bugs and snugs
For instance, it gets all the water it needs from slurping up termites all day – up to 20,000 – and unlike other termite munchers, it doesn’t rudely bash and destroy their mounds. It’s too dinky to do that, so it digs or licks them up through shallow soil with its long and sticky tongue before swallowing without chewing. Give it a eucalpyt forest with a nice tree hollow, or a burrow to shelter in during the night, and it’s happy.
Even if you disturb it, the most you’ll get is a mild “tutting”, and if you’re a predator trying to shove your way into its burrow, it won’t necessarily fight, just use its stripy bottom to awkwardly block the way. See? It’s unerringly polite. Well, unless it’s mating season.
Red hot passion
Both sexes are solitary, and when males encounter one another, the claws are out. When they meet a female, it’s time to show off the chest. To advertise himself to the local ladies, a male develops a musky red torso, and he uses this to scent-mark trees, rocks and other suitable areas. The lucky females have one of the shortest pregnancies of mammals – just 14 days – but as a dasyurid, or carnivorous marsupial, the numbat doesn’t have a “true” pouch like other fluffy Australian fauna. Instead, there’s a flap of gold-ish, crimped fur that protects the babies while nursing.
It’s only once it graduates from milk to termites that the numbat starts growing its distinctive long snout. Probably wise, because suddenly waking up with a long nose in a menthol eucalyptus forest would be a bit of a shock to the senses. And with a smaller population than even the orangutan, the numbat has had enough nasty surprises without dragging its nose into it!
Latin: Myrmecobius fasciatus
What? Stripy little mammal with a long nose and sticky tongue for lapping up termites
Where? South-west Western Australia has two populations, one near Narrogin and another in Perup Nature Reserve
How big? 20-29 cm / 7.8-11.4 inches long, and with a tail of 12-21 cm / 4.7-8.2 inches long. Its tongue alone can be up to 11 cm / 4.3 inches long!
Endangered? Yes – more so than the panda and orangutan! There are only about 1,000 left in the wild, due to feral cats, foxes, and habitat destruction.
Probable motto: I’m a cute and fluffy mammal with a specialised diet threatened by habitat destruction. Could I be loved as much as a panda?
They look adorable. Do they need my help at all?
Absolutely yes. Project Numbat has been set up specifically to help safeguard and monitor the species.
Since 1986 Perth Zoo has also run a captive breeding programme, and it’s been reliably popping out babies since about 1993.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Cooper, Christine Elizabeth. 2011. “Myrmecobius fasciatus (Dasyuromorphia: Myrmecobiidae)“. Mammalian Species 43(881):129-140
“Myrmecobius fasciatus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
“Numbat“. No date. Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
“Numbats are amazing!“. No date. Project Numbat.
“Numbat breeding programme“. No date. Perth Zoo.
“Numbat – profile“. No date. New South Wales Government: Office of Environment and Heritage.
Featured image credit: “Numbat”, by CraigRJD.