Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 98 – The Numbat


“If one way be better than another, that you may be sure is Nature’s way”
Aristotle – Nichomachean Ethics

One significant fact to cherish about the numbat is its relationship to the now extinct thylacine [1] or Tasmanian tigerThey were cousins. You may remember “Benjamin” the very last thylacine, who died in Hobart Zoo in 1936 in deeply sad circumstances. Numbat  Ironically, the numbat is the only living member of its own family of marsupials – the Myrmecobiidae family .   So it will be quite something if Australia manages to hang on to it.   And… they are trying.  A lot of dedicated people are doing all they can to keep the numbat alive, and, in general, it is held in quite high regard.  In 1973, the then Governor of Western Australia, His Excellency Major General Sir Douglas Anthony Kendrew, declared and authorised this unique and rapidly declining species as the faunal emblem of the State of Western Australia.

Perhaps, by way of apology!

Needless to say,  these mammals are in danger of extinction in the wild because of man’s never-ending activities.   Although these same activities began Numbat with the first European settlers, they have continued to this day.  At one time, the numbat were widespread across Australia, but massive loss of habitat has left them confined to a few isolated pockets in Western Australia, where only two original populations still survive. Small numbers of the species have, however, been reintroduced there and in other areas as part of the significant conservation effort.

Agriculture, as usual, has done its bit, along with mining and humans building more and more settlements.  Whereas the need for housing is not difficult to understand, after all we all need somewhere to live, if not for the expansion of farming and mining it wouldn’t have really been necessary to live within the range of the numbat and devour so much of its natural habitat.   And… do we really need to cultivate every inch of land on the planet Numbat at the cost of its original inhabitants and the environment in general? The answer is a resounding NO.

Numbats, also know as banded anteaters, favour environments where termites are plentiful, which means a habitat that is neither too wet nor too cold, and has areas where the sun can penetrate and stir the termites into action so the numbats can feed on them.  So their free choices of living areas are limited to start with. The hollow fallen trees they shelter and nest in are fast-disappearing with these developments, and their only prey with them. 

Bush fires have also taken the lives of many of these little creatures, as they have others animals and humans occasionally, which is more sad than reprehensible.  But these fires make light work of the hollow logs the numbats use as their homes, again leaving the species without food and shelter.  The loss of these hollow shelters has also made the numbat more vulnerable to predators.

The need to introduce predators such as red foxes and cats has never been adequately explained either.  Both these species prey on the poor little numbats and have had a devastating effect on the population.

Numbat Personally, I think these little animals are adorable, and with a name like numbat, who could possibly fail to be drawn to them and their plight.

Numbats are small animals with pointed heads, long faces and tiny ears.  They have squirrel-like bushy tails and short legs.  Small enough to be weighed in grams, they come in at between four and seven hundred of them.  They can grow up to twelve inches in length, with a tail of about seven inches.  The males are larger and heavier than the females.  Coats vary from greyish-brown to darker shades of red on the shoulders and head.   Numbats have a pale underside and a black stripe across the eyes.  They also have very distinctive black and white banding on the back and rump showing a remarkable colour resemblance to their cousins, the lost Tasmanian tigers.  Numbats have strong claws with five toes on the forefeet and four on the hind feet, and the ability to stand on their hind legs when feeling curious or threatened.

Numbat The species has some fascinating adaptations, too:

The long narrow snout is designed for finding the corridors termites travel along and the small holes in the ground they occupy.  Numbats sense the presence of the termites they love so much by using olfactory perception.

They have a long thin tongue, which they like to keep ‘well-oiled’ with saliva to maintain its stickiness.  This tongue is perfectly modified to retrieve the day’s newly discovered termites and enjoy a hearty meal.  There are multiple ridges along the numbat’s soft palate to scrape the termites off the tongue .

And, they have a mouth full of non-functional teeth set in an under-developed jaw.  There is little need for numbats to chew their food, so teeth are not an issue.

Numbats are strictly diurnal and one of the only two Australian marsupials to be so.  The other is the musky rat-kangaroo.  Their daylight activity is closely associated with that of its termite prey.  Termites are out and about early in the day in the summer, before the sun gets too hot and they feel the need to take refuge from the heat in deeper soil.   As the day cools, the termites reappear.  In winter, termites tend to stay out of reach until mid to late morning when the soil starts to warm up, and will remain active until dusk arrives.  These movements dictate the feeding and resting patterns of the numbats.

NumbatsNumbats are mostly solitary animals, coming together only during mating.  With the exception of a mother and her young, the species is rarely seen together.  The mating season runs from December to January.  After a gestation period of fourteen days, the mother will give birth to up to four babies.  Numbats do not have a pouch and the babies will be kept warm by the long underside hairs of the mother.  The babies will latch on to the mother’s teats, which in turn swell in their mouths preventing them from dropping off.  The babies, born bind and hairless, will learn to cling whilst growing.  Sweetly, the babies’ noses are flat allowing them to get close to their mothers and feed.  When they are big enough to eat termites, their long noses will develop to accommodate that action, too.  The rest of their first year will see them deposited in a nest, weaned, eating termites and gaining independence before going their own way at twelve months.

[1] Various sightings of thylacine have been reported over the past decades and it seems there is a vague possibility the species may be extant.

Natural Habitat
Eucalypt forests and woodlands
Western Australia | Scotia Sanctuary in New South Wales | Yookamura Sanctuary in South Australia
What they eat
Termites – Adults eat roughly twenty thousand termites a day (they do not eat ants despite their other name of banded anteater)
Feral cats and foxes;  these are predators which have been introduced to the numbat’s natural habitat.  Natural predators such as pythons, eagles and goshawks.  Loss of habitat due to agricultural development, bushfires, mining and residential development.
Status: Endangered
The Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) is listed on the  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species  as Endangered.  It is also listed as a threatened species under Australian law. Numbers are low in the wild, but the species is being reintroduced, successfully boosting the numbat population and helping to combat the threat of extinction.  Perth Zoo,  the world’s only captive breeding centre for numbats, breeds and returns the animals back into the wild on an annual basis as part of its  Native Species Breeding Program.  Care is now also being taken to release the numbats into fox-free areas.

Related Articles
Where to See Numbats 
Perth Zoo’s numbats evade squirts and birds to make it alive in the wild

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 61 – The Sumatran Tiger

Sumatran tiger in jungle

Image: Creative Commons

From the eyes on its head to the whiskers on its face, there is not a single bit of the tiger that does not promise a cure for something.  Or, so decree the Oracles of Chinese traditional medicine.  And, if the Chinese are not boiling the tiger, grinding its bones into powder or making soup of it, others are selling it on the black market for as much as twenty thousand dollars per animal.  Live beasts are good, but dead pose little problem. And, of course, there is always a little bit of sport involved, too.  Then there are the land robbers, committing large scale pillage and rape.  They have logged, cleared, burnt, converted, planted and settled.  And, they show no signs of easing up until they have fully exploited the Sumatran tiger’s habitat.  The situation, by the admittance of Indonesian forestry officials, is now way out of control.  We are, in case you haven’t already guessed, back in Sumatra;  an island where they seem very practised at forcing species towards extinction.

Sumatran tigers can be distinguished by their thinner stripes.  Male Sumatrans have long fur around their faces, giving them a maned appearance.  They are smaller than other subspecies, with an average male weighing about two hundred and sixty-five pounds. Females are less heavy at about two hundred pounds.  Males grow up to eight feet in length, and females, a slightly shorter seven feet.

Tigers kill swiftly and painlessly.  A tiger will ambush its prey from behind and administer one fatal bite to the neck.  The spinal cord will break and death is almost always instantaneous.  They will then drag their prey out of sight.  They can eat up to forty pounds at a time, and will save what they don’t eat for later.  They are spectacular swimmers and have been known to chase their prey into water to gain an advantage. They live in dens and caves, and sometimes tree hollows;  they are mostly nocturnal and invariably solitary.

There is no specific breeding season for tigers, but mating often takes place between November and April, following which there is a gestation period of about three and a half months.  Three or four cubs will be born in a cave, a rocky crevice, or in dense vegetation. For the first few days their eyes and ears will remain closed.  The father of the cubs will not be involved in raising them.  They will stay within the confines of the den until they reach eight weeks.  At the age of six months they will begin their lessons in killing prey. However, their first lone kill will not be until they are about eighteen months old.  Cubs normally stay with their mothers until they are two or three years of age.  The juvenile mortality is high, however, and sadly, almost half of all cubs do not survive beyond the age of two.

The Sumatran tiger is the smallest of the five tiger subspecies.  It has lived exclusively, for over a million years, in the once extensive moist tropical jungles of the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Although tigers have been killed as a result of human conflict, the most significant numbers of killings have been for financial gain.  Poaching for trade is responsible for over 78% of estimated Sumatran tiger deaths, consisting of at least 40 animals per year.  There is no evidence that this trade is declining.

Almost sixty-seven thousand square kilometres of forest was lost between 1985 and 1997.  Most of that was lowland forest, the preferred habitat of the Sumatran tiger.  Since then, the annual rate of deforestation has increased dramatically.

If these illegal activities are not stamped out soon, or at least brought under control, there will be no future for the Sumatran tiger.

Montane and peat forests, lowlands, swamps and rivers.
The Indonesian island of Sumatra.
What they eat
Young rhinos, various pigs and members of the deer family.   It will also feast on smaller prey such as snakes, fish, monkeys and tapirs.
Habitat loss, illegal logging, depletion of prey base, human conflict and poaching.
Status: Critically Endangered
The Sumatran tiger  (Panthera tigris sumatrae)  is listed on the IUCN List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered.  Most wild tigers live in the various National Parks of Sumatra.    Others, about 20% of the overall population, live in unprotected areas.  However, the square acreage of these supposedly protected National Parks is constantly dwindling due to illegal agriculture. The growing of coffee has become a major concern.  This issue, and others, can only be addressed by a) the law being strictly enforced – which it most certainly is not at the moment, and b) making the penalties far more severe that they are.

It is thought three hundred of the species may still survive in Sumatra in the wild. There are roughly the same amount kept in zoos.  “The European breeding programme and the Global Management Species Programme for Sumatran tigers are both coordinated by ZSL London Zoo – where ZSL’s specialists are responsible for ensuring a healthy and diverse population of tigers in zoos around the world.” [1]
There are various international organisations and trusts who are trying to help the Sumatran tiger, but unless something is done to halt the destruction of the forests soon, the Sumatran tiger will go the way of the Javan and Balinese tigers.  Both of which are now extinct.

“Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all”

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 46 – The African Wild Ass

Somali  wild ass and foal

Source: Zooborns

The African wild ass is a highly endangered equidae.  Numbers have decreased by ninety per cent in the past two decades.  And, like so many other poor unfortunates, the wild ass is hunted for, here we go again, traditional medicine.  Amongst other things, its bones are boiled up to make a cure-all soup for the heartless and ill-informed.

The ancestor of all domestic donkeys, the species was domesticated about six thousand years ago.  It’s hard to enter any country without seeing a domesticated donkey somewhere, yet only a few hundred of their wild ancestors are still in existence.

African wild asses have a smooth coat, which varies from light grey to fawn becoming white on the undersides and legs.  Most have a dark stripe along the back and the Somalian subspecies has black horizontal stripes on its legs.  They all have a stiff, upright mane.  They can reach a height of five and a half feet  (16.2)  at the shoulder and are about six and a half feet in length.

The species is crepuscular, feeding during twilight hours when the temperatures are lower.  The day is spend resting in the shade of the rocky hills.  They are fast and sure-footed over the rough terrain, and can reach speeds of up to thirty miles per hour.

Although well-adapted to the arid climate, they do need surface water.  Most stay permanently within twenty miles of water.  Moisture is extracted from the vegetation they consume.  They can survive with very little liquid, but need to drink at least once every three days, and lactating females need to drink every day.  Therefore a surface water supply is essential to them.  Unfortunately, access to water (and food) is often limited due to competition with livestock.

African wild asses live in small herds, typically consisting of fewer than five animals.  Only the mother and her foal form long-term relationships.  Following mating, the gestation period is relatively long; eleven to twelve months.  Usually, only one foal is born.  The foal will be weaned at six to eight months, and reach sexual maturity at two years.

Rocky deserts, arid and semi-arid bushlands and grasslands, where there is access to surface water.
Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
What they eat
Grasses, bark and leaves.
Hunting for food and traditional medicine.  Competition from domestic livestock for food and water supplies.  Interbreeding between wild and domestic donkeys, resulting in hybridisation.
Status: Critically Endangered
The African Wild Ass (Equus africanus) is listed on the  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species  as Critically Endangered.  Fewer than five hundred and seventy individuals are thought to still exist, the least number being in Somalia.  The species is protected by law in Somalia and Ethiopia, but, these laws are difficult to enforce and illegal hunting still goes on.  The use of automatic weapons is common in some areas.
African wild asses are kept in captivity around the world and breeding programs do exist. These have been very successful and births have occurred.  Indeed, the image above portrays a foal named Hakaba, born in 2010 at the Basel Zoo, Switzerland.  It is unclear, though, whether any of these animals will ever be returned to their natural environment.

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”