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Australian Marsupials - The Numbat

By Edited May 30, 2015 1 2

A Monotypic Species and Animal Emblem of Western Australia

The numbat is one of Australia's many marsupials and is now found only in the south-western corner of Western Australia. It was first documented in 1831 and was once endemic across the greater part of southern Australia from coast to coast. Once the European red fox was released in the 19th century, the numbat was exterminated from all states bar Western Australia. By the late 1970s, it was almost gone from Western Australia as well with the population being under 1,000 individuals.

Numbat

The numbat is the only marsupial that is insectivorous. It is also known as the Walpurti or the banded anteater and has the scientific name of Myrmecobius fasciatus. The numbat is the mammal emblem of Western Australia.

Because of its rarity, Perth Zoo has established a captive population as has South Australia. A colony of numbats is known to exist in the Dryandra National Park but they are not seen often.

Numbats favour open eucalyptus woodlands of wandoo and jarrah.

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The numbat reaches about 24cm in length. The flashy, bushy tail adds about 17cm. Weight ranges from 280 to 700 grams. They look a bit like a squirrel with a delicate, tapering head and long, pointy snout. The thin tongue is sticky and long. It eats 10 to 20,000 odd termites per day. The tongue is half the length of the head and body. Apart from the long, sticky tongue, the numbat is not well equipped for eating ants. It does not have the powerful forelegs and strong claws of other ant-eating species. This is one reason why it is fully active during the day.

For its size the claws are quite strong but not powerful enough to prise open the concrete-like termite mounds. The numbat has a highly developed sense of smell. It snuffles along through the bush seeking out shallow, underground tracks that termites construct between feeding sites and their nest. Its claws are equal to the task of scrabbling up termites from these shallow tunnels.

The 'banded' part of 'banded anteater' is a good descriptive name for this marsupial. However its main diet is not ants. The base colour varies from soft grey to a reddish-brown which darkens to almost black towards the tail. Some have a brick-red area on the back near the tail and, with its pale stripes, the result is very attractive. The under parts are cream or light grey. The back has six or seven white bands running across it. A black stripe runs from the tip of the muzzle over the eye to the base of the ears which are small and round. The legs are delicate and the claws on the small side. The jaw is degenerate with 50 or more tiny, non-functional teeth. Despite this it does not chew but generally it swallows its food whole. The bushy tail has the appearance of a bottle-brush when held erect and fluffed up, as it often is.

The numbat is gentle and timid. It is also solitary with each individual having its own home range of up to 1.5 square kilometres. Male and female territories overlap with males venturing out of their own territory during the breeding season to find a mate.

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Mating takes place in December. The gestation period is 14 days after which the babies are born in a very underdeveloped state. One to four tiny babies attach themselves to a teat on the mother's belly. Unlike most marsupials, the numbat does not have a protective pouch. After five months, the mother moves the young to a burrow or hollow log. She will return from feeding to suckle them. From 6 to 10 months she may carry the young on her back. By late spring, they move on to establish their own territories. Numbats are sexually mature at eleven months.

The numbat sometimes digs a burrow to sleep in but also relies heavily on hollow fallen logs. Its burrows are typically narrow and 1 to 2 metres long. A spherical chamber at the end may be lined with soft plant material including grass, leaves and shredded bark.

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It is believed that the Dryandra population has survived because of the prevalence of fallen hollow logs. It uses logs as bolt holes when threatened by predators and as resting places. It will carry nesting material in its mouth. It will sometimes block the entrance to its nest by blocking the opening with the thick hide of its rump. It is a slow moving creature.

During winter, it feeds from mid-morning to mid-afternoon when the termites are most active. During summer, termites are not so active during the middle of the day and the numbat feeds morning and evening, resting through the heat of the day.

Being diurnal the numbat is more vulnerable to predators than nocturnal marsupials. Eagles, sparrowhawks, foxes and carpet pythons are some of its predators. A program of fox baiting in the Dryandra area was highly successful. However the numbat remains at risk of extinction and is classed as an endangered species.

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Comments

Feb 10, 2012 6:48am
JadeDragon
Never seen one of these guys before. Interesting.
Feb 10, 2012 8:24am
JudyE
Thanks for the comment. We used to come across numbats sometimes at the back of our farm when we went riding (horses) through the bush. The native animals didn't seem particularly scared of the horses and would just carry on with what they were doing.
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