23.2a – The Slow Loris

Slow and nervous — a toxic combination. (Sunda slow loris photo by David Haring)

In the leafy, tropical forests of southeast Asia, you may happen upon a slow loris — but you would probably never know it.

The slow loris is part of a group known as the lorisids. The ten species of lorisids live in southeast Asia and central Africa, and they include the slender loris, the potto, and the angwantibo. In general they are mid- to small-sized primates with large eyes and very short tails, if they have any tail at all.

But the slow loris is the most interesting of the lot, for one very obvious reason. It is the only type of primate in the world that is venomous.

This trait is extremely rare among mammals. The slow loris does not produce toxins directly in its mouth, but has a rather ingenious system in place. It produces a compound from a gland on its arm, and when it licks this gland, the compound mixes with its saliva to form a toxin inside the mouth. That sounds somewhat foolish and dangerous, but the toxin doesn’t harm the loris — it only harms things the loris bites.

But a slow loris is not an aggressive creature; its bite is used only in self-defense. The animal also licks the toxin into the fur of its young, so that predators will be less likely to look upon a slow loris as a tasty snack.

These precautions are important because of how the slow loris moves — as you might have guessed from the name, it moves very slowly. If you are fortunate enough to spot a slow loris in the jungle, chances are very good that it will be creeping along at a snail’s pace, or not moving at all. It has strong hands that can clamp onto a branch so tightly that it takes a serious effort to make them let go, so they have no problem just hanging around and not moving at all, sloth-like.

But what we didn’t understand about this is that the slow loris is only slow when we’re watching it. This is an interesting effect in science — the notion that a thing might change simply because it is being observed, which in turn means that any conclusions we draw from our observations may be false.

The thing is, the slow loris, and indeed all of the lorisids, move slowly when they feel there might be danger nearby, and in their eyes anything that moves is a potential danger. In their dense, leafy homes, moving slowly helps them blend in and avoid being spotted and eaten.

But put a loris in an environment where it feels safe, such as darkness, and it will move about normally, yet it wasn’t until we had the proper technology that we understood that. So we named it the slow loris, and the name has stuck. However, there is still one difference between a loris’s normal movement and what you would expect from a primate — the slow loris does not jump. At all. It has no future in basketball.

Slow loris species are either vulnerable or endangered, for two reasons. One is a reason that threatens many species in southeast Asia, namely habitat destruction from deforestation to clear land for human use or consumption. The second reason is the wildlife trade. Slow lorises are popular as exotic pets, but this is very bad for the species. In order for a slow loris to become a human pet, its teeth are usually removed so that it cannot inflict its toxic bite (which is painful but not fatal to humans). Many of these animals eventually die from infection or malnutrition after having their teeth removed.

A baby slow loris has its teeth removed with nail clippers before it becomes a pet. Yes, it’s just as bad as it looks. (Photo by International Animal Rescue)

People like slow lorises so much because they are docile, agreeable pets, but you must remember — the slow loris acts slow and docile only when it is feeling threatened. The cuter it looks, the more it fears for its life. Life as a pet is not good for a slow loris, but people all over the world own them. Since 2007 it has been completely illegal in every country in the world to import a slow loris, but exotic pet traders still find ways to smuggle them into other countries and sell them, often to people who don’t know that they are illegal.

To make a long story short, don’t ever buy a slow loris as a pet. Most die in captivity, and live unhappy existences up until they do, but so long as people are willing to pay for them because they are cute, there will be those who circumvent the law to take them from the wild and sell them.

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22.1a – The Sloth

Getting the hang of it. (Photo by Masteraah)

Ah, the sloth. Has any animal’s name ever been so efficiently descriptive, so elegantly appropriate? It’s all right there, one word, five letters — sloth.

Sloths are curious creatures found in the jungles of central and South America. The word “sloth” existed before the scientific community knew about them, a word that meant slow, lazy, lagabout, mud-for-bones, or any number of terms both real and perhaps imagined by the author that come round to the same concept — just plain doesn’t do much. Like a teenager on summer vacation, the sloth fits this term perfectly, so perfectly that we slapped the word right on it as a name.

These creatures are highly distinctive. They are shaped somewhat like large monkeys with their long arms and flat faces, but they are not in any measurable way related to primates. As you know, they are most closely related to anteaters. It’s only that long arms and a generally monkey-like body shape are best suited for climbing in trees, and that’s what sloths do, so this is what they evolved to look like.

Sloths in fact spend almost their entire lives in trees, because that’s where they are safest from predators. But there are many predators in South America that can also climb trees, from the jaguar to large snakes, so what’s this all about?

The key to life as a sloth is in the name. Sloths are known for moving very, very, extremely, quite rather incredibly very slowly. But it’s not laziness. The slowness of a sloth is in fact its greatest defense against predators.

“Don’t mess with me. I’m warning you, if you do, I will sit here. I will sit here so hard, you won’t even know what didn’t hit you.” (Photo by Stefan Laube)

If that makes no sense to you, you’re just not thinking like a sloth. When you don’t move, you don’t attract attention, and when you don’t attract attention, predators don’t try to eat you.

With this in mind, sloths have taken the fine art of not moving to new levels. They spend about ten hours a day sleeping, and the rest is spent hanging upside-down from branches and either not moving or very, very slowly reaching out for leaves to eat. A sloth will only carefully move around in a tree to find new food, or for a bathroom break. When a sloth needs to do its business, it doesn’t simply squat and let it go off the side of a branch. No, the sloth is a more refined creature. About once a week a sloth will very slowly climb down to the ground and relieve itself, then very slowly climb back up.

In fact, scientists have wondered why they do this, because it’s easier to just go from the tree and let it drop, not to mention safer. We don’t really know for certain. Some think it is how sloths find each other for breeding purposes; others think the sloth is worried that going from the tree will make too much noise and attract a predator; still others think the sloth is trying to nourish the tree by burying its excrement near the trunk, thereby helping its own food supply. Or maybe they’re just really fussy. Who knows?

The best part of all this is that it means not only that the sloth digests its food very slowly, but that it stores its excrement inside its own body until it’s ready to do its business. If you kill a sloth close to its bathroom day, there’s a good chance that up to one-third of its body weight will be feces and urine that it was waiting to get rid of. So have fun with that.

This lifestyle serves the sloth very well. For one thing, when you don’t move much you don’t use energy, which means you need to eat less, which means you need to move less. It’s a very happy cycle. For another, the sloth is perfectly adapted for hanging upside down in trees. It is the only mammal with hair that grows toward the body instead of away from it. Look at your arm — the hairs all grow out toward the hand. Look at a dog’s leg — the hairs grow down toward the feet. Not so for the sloth. Its hairs grow the opposite direction, back toward the body’s core, because that way it will still protect against rain when the sloth is hanging upside-down, which it nearly always is.

In addition, sloths have long, curved claws that are not for digging or fighting — though they will take a swipe at you if you threaten it — but for hanging. The claws allow the sloth to hang without any effort, no use of muscle at all. They just dig the claws in, let themselves relax, and hang. This is so effective that even human poachers don’t bother sloths as much as they otherwise might. If you shoot a sloth while it’s hanging, it will simply keep hanging even when it’s dead, held up by its claws, and the poacher would have to climb up and get it. It’s the ultimate post-death screw-you.

Even a sloth that dies a natural death, say from old age, can sometimes remain hanging. They give birth while hanging upside-down, they eat upside-down, they sleep upside-down. To a sloth, the world looks crazy and backward when they stand up straight.

You might not expect it, but sloths can swim. However with all this talk of how slow they are, you might be wondering, really, how slow are they? A sloth in extreme danger of its life will turn up the volume and dash about at an incredible 13 feet per minute. Yes, per minute. Try moving that slowly across your living room without going insane. But remember, that’s only the speed of a really terrified sloth. Normally they only move half that fast at best, and usually even slower.

Two hours later, it finished this bite. (Photo by Fruitwerks)

There’s even a bit more to a sloth’s defense system than sheer slowness, though. They also have camouflage, and it’s about the grossest camouflage you can think of.

Each sloth is essentially its own slow-moving ecosystem. Their hair is host to a number of bacterial colonies that just love sloths, love them so much that a sloth is the only place they will grow, and each baby sloth gets its own bacterial colony from its mother. The bacteria go nuts and cover the sloth’s hair and skin with patches of colour that help the animal blend in with the branches. In exchange for making it harder to see, the sloth lets the bacteria live on its body forever. The bacteria also tends to attract insects, and so you might also find plenty of happy bugs snuggled up with the sloth. They all get along famously, but for the love of God don’t try to pet one.

There are two basic types of sloths alive today, the two-toed sloths and the three-toed sloths. Despite their similar appearance in all things not toe-related, these two types are not very closely related at all.

All sloths have three toes on the back feet, but the two-toed sloths have only two toes on the front feet. These two types of sloths have been evolutionarily separate for more than 35 million years, which is a very long time for two things to be apart and yet still look so similar. The two-toed sloths are much more closely related to the extinct giant ground sloths than to their three-toed distant cousins.

We don’t even actually know what three-toed sloths are related to, or how they came to be. Their line on the tree of evolution is drawn in the shape of a question mark. But it is believed that the two types of sloth evolved independently from ground-dwelling sloths, and that it is sheer coincidence and convergent evolution that they look and behave so much alike. They even both do the inexplicable bathroom thing.

There is, however, one other major difference between the two types of sloth, and it’s a difference that sets each of them apart from all the other mammals as well. For whatever reason, almost every single mammal has seven neck bones, known as cervical vertebrae. You have seven, I have seven, your cat has seven, your hamster has seven, the elephant that hopefully didn’t just step on your hamster has seven, even the long-necked giraffes and the no-neck whales have seven.

But sloths? Sloths said no, no way, that won’t do, and they said it in opposite directions. The two-toed sloths have six neck bones; the three-toed sloths have nine. Why? No one knows. It’s preposterous and mysterious. They don’t need more or fewer neck bones. They’re both practically the same animal, why did they go different directions in terms of more or fewer? What purpose does it serve? Are they just trolling scientists?

We do actually have some idea how this happened, even if the result serves very little purpose. With nine neck bones the three-toed sloth has a more flexible neck than other creatures, but it doesn’t need it; nor does the two-toed sloth needs its more rigid neck. But it comes down to genes.

It turns out that the reason every other type of mammal has seven neck bones, no matter how big or small its neck gets, is that the gene that controls how many neck bones we have is the same gene that helps determine how our nervous systems and our cells grow. If that gene were to change our number of neck bones, there’s a good chance that it would also give us brain problems and cancer, which would keep us (or any other mammal) from passing its different-number-of-neck-bones gene along to any offspring.

So how did the sloth get away with it? It is useful to consider that one other type of mammal also pulled off this trick, and that’s the manatee. We haven’t looked at them yet, but they are slow animals as well, and have six neck bones. The very slow metabolisms of the manatee and the sloth may actually make them resistant to cancer and DNA damage, which would mean that when evolution gave their neck bones a slip, they survived the change and even though it didn’t necessarily confer any specific advantage or disadvantage, they passed it on to their kids with a shrug. A very slow shrug.

Sloths. So weird.

Sloth distribution.

21 – The Book of Pholidota

Off-the-scales awesome. (Photo by Dushy Ranetunge)

Throughout many of the forested and open tropical regions of the world, in Africa, India, China, and southeast Asia, you might catch a rustle of undergrowth or the scrape of claws in the night. This could be any number of things, but if you’re very lucky you might have found one of the eight living species in the order Pholidota, which means “scaly ones”.

These are the pangolins, a wonderful type of creature otherwise known as the scaly anteater. They are unique in the animal world as being the only mammal with hard keratin scales. These scales are rigid, tough to get through, and sharp around the edges, which when combined with the fact that the pangolin can roll itself into a ball makes it a tough nut to crack for any predator.

Pangolins have long scaled tails and claws for ripping apart termite nests or tree bark in the quest for tasty insects. Like other anteater-type animals (though the pangolin is not a true anteater), it has a long, flexible tongue for getting into tight spaces and pulling insects out. A pangolin’s tongue is typically more than a foot long, but is only 0.2 inches wide. To make matters even more interesting, pangolins don’t actually keep their tongues in their mouths when not using them — they actually keep their tongues sheathed all the way down their own throats and attached down near their stomachs. They don’t have any teeth, so they simply use their tongue to pull insects directly down into the digestive system.

Their claws are so long and so important for their livelihood that pangolins are hesitant to risk damaging them. When they walk about they actually curl their claws up against the pads of their feet and walk in an awkward manner on their knuckles. As you can imagine, this makes them far from the fastest animal around. But in addition to those marvelous defensive scales, a pangolin can also spray a foul-smelling acid like a skunk. The long and the short of it is that you can’t easily mess with a pangolin.

That hasn’t of course stopped humans from doing so. Pangolin numbers have decreased across most of their habitats due to deforestation and human hunting. Pangolins in Africa are often used for meat, but in Asia their scales are also in demand for use in that old species-killing standby, traditional Chinese medicine. Some pangolins are endangered, but there is still a black market trade for them. Studies of pangolins and their exact behaviour and populations in the wild are few due to their nocturnal nature.

The giant pangolin of western and central Africa is the largest of the eight species, weight up to 70 pounds with a body more than four feet long before you count the tail. But the best tail on any pangolin belongs to the tree pangolin, which lives in roughly the same areas as the giant pangolin.

The tree pangolin has a prehensile tail and does not rely exclusively on termite mounds for its meals. The tree pangolin, as the name implies, can climb a tree and hang from its tail to rip bark apart and get at the treats beneath. Using its tail for balance it can walk on two legs when it needs to, and there are even reports that it can stand on two legs, with its hind claws and tail holding on, while standing completely sideways on the side of a tree.

And this one almost got the job as stunt double for Tom Cruise in the first Mission: Impossible movie. (Photo by verdammelt)

Pangolins are solitary creatures by nature and most of them are quite good at swimming. They are very distant relatives of the cats and dogs in Carnivora, but took an entirely different evolutionary path down their own branch of the evolutionary tree. This surprised researchers when it was first learned, for it was long assumed that pangolins were more closely related to armadillos or sloths, but this is simply not the case. It is only a matter of insect-eating species often evolving, entirely on their own, into similar forms that are best suited to the task.

Pangolin distribution.

20.2a – The Rhinoceros

One good horn deserves another. (Indian rhinoceros photo by Krish Dulal)

There are five living types of rhinoceros, called rhino for short, left in the world today, and these strange, hulking, armored behemoths represent a living look into the distant past.

Once upon a time, millions of years ago in the period between the fall of the dinosaurs and the rise of humans, enormous mammals inherited the earth. With all of the planet’s resources at their disposal and all of the dinosaurs extinct, mammals took the opportunity to evolve into ever-larger, stronger forms, becoming in a way the mammal equivalent of the great dinosaurs themselves. These enormous animals are called megafauna, and you could once find them everywhere in all different types.

Humanity for a large part put an end to that, killing off most of the megafauna while we were still a young species living in the last ice age, for after all when you want meat and fur to survive, the most efficient way to get them is to kill the biggest animals around.

But some types of those enormous animals still live today, though all of the very biggest ones are gone from the land. The rhinoceros is one of those surviving animals.

Today you will find two types of rhino that live in Africa, and these are easy to distinguish because they have two horns on the front of their face. There are also three Asian rhinos, and these have only one horn (except for one of them, which is an oddball).

Rhinos are big, and they are tough. All of the living species can weigh more than a tonne, and they are covered with a thick, highly-structured skin that protects them from harm. A rhino’s skin can be as many as two inches thick.

The two most noticeable things about a rhino other than its size are its horns and the fact that it has no knees—none of the rhinos do. They simply walk with their legs completely straight, and can only bend them at the shoulder and hip joints.

The horn is made of keratin, the same as a deer’s antlers or a human’s fingernails or a horse’s hoof. It is not a true horn because it has no bony core, but neither is it an antler, because it doesn’t fall off. We call it a horn to make things simple. Rhinos have long been killed by humans, both legally and illegally, to obtain these horns. Entire rhinoceros groups have been left dead to rot while the horns alone are carted away by poachers. This is because the horns are used in illegal and dubious medicines in parts of the world, or also sometimes as expensive and unsavory decorations. We are not a fun species to live with on this world.

The two African rhinos are the white rhinoceros and the black rhinoceros. The funny thing about them is that they are neither white nor black, but are both in fact grey. There is very little colour difference between the two. We named the black rhino because we wanted to distinguish it from the white rhino, but no one knows why we named the white rhino. It’s just one of those things.

The white rhinoceros, versus … (Photo by Ikiwaner)

… the black rhinoceros. Notice the stark difference in colours? No, me neither. (Photo by Staycoolandbegood)

The black rhino was once the most numerous rhino in the world, with several hundred thousand of them living in Africa only a hundred years ago. By the 1960s that number had dropped to 70,000, and by 1995 it had dropped as low as 2400, simply because humans wouldn’t stop killing them. Some of its subspecies are extinct or nearly so, but overall their numbers have since recovered a little, to around 4200.

In Asia you will find the Indian rhinoceros, the Javan rhinoceros, and the Sumatran rhinoceros. The Sumatran rhino is the smallest of the species, and also the hairiest, but only about 250 of them are still alive. It is the most ancient type of rhino still alive today, and in its hairier body we might see echoes of the wooly rhino that once roamed Asia and Europe before the coming of man. The Sumatran rhino is the oddball I mentioned earlier, for unlike the other Asian rhinos it has two horns. It also has a prehensile lip, which is wonderful. This means it can extend and fully control its lip to grasp objects

The Sumatran rhinoceros is just plain weird. (Photo by Charles W. Hardin)

But the Sumatran rhino is not the rarest, unfortunately. There are only about 60 Javan rhinos left in the world, making it one of the rarest mammals anywhere. They live in dense jungle where it is difficult to enforce laws to protect them against poachers. Soon, perhaps, the poachers will kill the last one and that will be the end of their work.

Rhinos have very little in the way of protection against human weapons, but they are excellent at fending off natural predators, which is part of why they have survived so long. With their thick skin protecting them, a rhino can charge a predator and attack with its great horn, and some rhinos can run as fast as 30 miles per hour. Why can’t they do that with poachers, you might ask? In most cases, a poacher will simply kill a rhino when it stops to get a drink from a water source.

Rhinos eat grass and vegetation, and most of the species are solitary except for mothers and their children. The white rhino is the exception, as this great beast lives in small herds of a dozen or so animals. A rhinoceros herd is called a crash, and I think that’s delightful.

Rhinoceros distribution.

16.2a – The Echidna

The Goldilocks of the animal kingdom. (Photo by Laikayiu)

There are four species of echidna in the world, three found only on New Guinea and one found both there and throughout Australia. Along with the platypus they are the only other egg-laying mammals in the world.

They are known as spiny anteaters, but they aren’t related to real anteaters. However they have evolved similar features, including a long snout and an even longer tongue, both perfect for sticking into logs or ant hills to snaffle up a snack.

The “spiny” part of their nickname is accurate enough though. Echidnas are covered in thick spines and coarse hair that serves to protect them from predators. The echidna is generally a slow and non-aggressive beast, so when threatened it simply curls up in a ball, similar to a hedgehog, and waits for whatever is bothering it to go away. It can also swim, using its long nose as a snorkel, and has powerful claws for digging or ripping into food sources.

What it doesn’t have, however, is any sort of tolerance to temperature changes. If it gets too hot, the echidna is incapable of sweating and will avoid the sun for fear of overheating. If it gets too cold, it will enter a torpor to save energy. At both of these extremes, the creature does not enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, that deepest form of rest. Like Goldilocks, the echidna wants things juuuust right, and only then (at about 25 degrees Celsius) does it feel at home.

“Too cold. Not coming out.” (Photo by Nachoman-au)

Echidnas do not have particularly good eyesight, but they don’t need it, and even blind echidnas can survive in the wild. To be an echidna you only need to know what the temperature is, how to find some insects, and how to roll into a protective ball. It is helped in this by a weak form of electroreception — not nearly as strong as that possessed by the platypus, but enough to give it a general sense of what’s around it by reading electrical signatures.

One interesting thing about echidnas is that they don’t have normal stomachs. Where other mammals use acidic digestive enzymes to digest food, an echidnas stomach is not very acidic at all. Instead it is made of a very tough material, and the stomach itself clenches and contracts to grind food down into a digestible paste that then passes through the intestine. Its stomach is essentially a second, stronger mouth inside of its body.

This next bit is going to get a little PG, so cover your eyes before you read on. The male echidna is particularly strange because its penis has not one, not two, but four heads. It uses two at a time when it comes to mating, and then switches to the other two for the next time. Handy, one supposes.

All right, you can uncover your eyes now, just in time for one more bit of interesting echidna anatomy. Of all the mammals in the world, the short-beaked echidna has the biggest prefrontal cortex relative to its body size, which is the part of the brain that, in humans at least, is used for planning and analyzing. This has led some scientists to wonder if the echidna might not be an intelligent, reasoning animal. So far, however, tests have shown it to have thinking abilities similar to those of a cat — which isn’t bad, but also isn’t great.

The echidna is the most widespread native Australian animal. You can find it anywhere you go on the entire continent, because as long as there are ants or termites, the echidna can survive.

Echidna distribution.

11.1a – The Hedgehog

Our prickliest pals. This is a European hedgehog. (Photo by Gibe)

Everyone loves hedgehogs. They’re small, cute, can be domesticated, and they have all those wonderfully pokey spines. But what is a hedgehog, really?

There are 17 different types of hedgehogs, found naturally in Europe, Africa, and Asia. They’re distantly related to shrews — and when I say distantly, I mean millions and millions of years distant — but are not related to porcupines, despite the similar prickly defense system.

The coolest thing about any hedgehog, of course, is its spines. A hedgehog’s spines are great because they are effective but they aren’t nearly as mean as a porcupine’s. A hedgehog’s spines don’t detach, they can’t be thrown at you, they aren’t barbed, and they’ll only cut you if you jam your hand onto them.

That said, they are pretty sharp, and there are about 5000 of them on your average hedgehog. The spines are actually just hairs that have been reinforced with keratin, the substance that forms our fingernails, but they’re both tough and lightweight, since they’re hollow inside. They are the ultimate in small-scale, lightweight, passive self-defense.

But it’s not all passive. Since a hedgehog is soft and fleshy in all the parts that aren’t covered in spines, it has the ability to squeeze itself into a ball around its own stomach and pull its back down so that the spines cover everything. This is a last resort sort of defense for a hedgehog, but even so it can still be preyed upon by a determined and hungry animal if it doesn’t mind having to stab itself a little and pry apart its snack.

An interesting thing that hedgehogs do with their spines is something called anointing. If a hedgehog encounters a new smell, something that really sticks out, it will chew on the source of the smell, create some saliva that carries the smell, and then rub that saliva all over its spines. We don’t really know why the little gaffers do this, but it might be an attempt to camouflage itself by blending in with whatever the strongest smells in the area are, so that predators smell that instead of the tasty scent of hedgehog.

Anointing looks just as weird as it sounds. (Photo by Gisrenist)

Hedgehogs are nocturnal and will eat just about anything, from insects to fruit to roadkill. They make good pets in places where it’s legal to own one. Hedgehogs can get cancer and heart disease just like people, and can also contract wobbly hedgehog syndrome, which is the cutest possible name for a disease that damages motor functions.

When I said above that everyone loves hedgehogs, I was purposefully omitting the grouchy denizens of Scotland and New Zealand. I kid, because in actuality hedgehogs are not found naturally in those places, and are an invasive pest that harm native insects while eating bird eggs, and there are no natural hedgehog predators present. When Scotland tried to help bird colonies on some of its islands by killing hundreds of hedgehogs, the hedgehog-loving international community became very upset. Since 2008, Scotland has instead tried to capture the hedgehogs and release them elsewhere.

10.1b – The Wombat

A lean, mean, digging machine — no butts about it. (Photo by JJ Harrison)

Like the numbat, the wombat has a great name. It’s the closest thing the koala has to a relative, and when you look at it you can see the similarities. A wombat and a koala were once the same sort of thing, but one took to the trees and became a koala while the other looked at the height, shook its head adamantly, and stayed on the ground to become a wombat.

Wombats are bigger than you’d think, measuring a good three feet from one end to the other. There are three wombat species in Australia, but two of them are relatively rare and live only in small areas. The common wombat is the one you’re most likely to see, found throughout the southeast coastal area of Australia and on the island of Tasmania, where it is a favourite food of the Tasmanian devil.

The easiest way to picture a wombat is to imagine a pig crossed with a badger, plus a pouch because it’s a marsupial. Wombats live in burrows beneath the ground, and are expert diggers with strong claws and a pouch that faces backward so that dirt doesn’t get in it while digging.

They eat plants, but they aren’t in anything resembling a hurry about it. Wombats are great at surviving tough conditions because they digest their food very, very (very) slowly. It can take one or two weeks for a wombat to fully digest a meal, meaning that a constant slow dribble of nutrients is always running into its system as long as it can eat now and then.

But a wombat in danger is a fast wombat, and they can really motor when they need to. In addition, they have a fantastic method of fending off predators by using their burrows, their brains, and their butts.

What happens is that a wombat being chased by a predator will dive into its burrow, but instead of simply going to the back and hoping the predator can’t dig in (or in most cases, simply walk in, since wombat tunnels are big enough for most Australian predators to enter), the wombat will wedge itself into the entrance and present its furry bottom to the world.

You can kiss his wom-butt. (Photo by Jason Pratt)

The reason this works is because a wombat’s bottom is tough, leathery, and filled with cartilage, the material that gives structure to the human nose. A predator that tries to bite a wombat in its butt will get nothing for its troubles. It hurts the wombat, but it won’t kill it. Sometimes the wombat takes this a clever step further by lowering its body just enough so that the predator can force its head into the tunnel, pushing in to get at the fleshy parts. The wombat will then close the trap by pushing upward with its strong hind legs, crushing the predator’s skull against the top of the tunnel.

Wombats won’t always run away. They are territorial, and sometimes, even with humans, they can get downright grouchy about something being in their area. An angry wombat is nothing to make light of. Their strong claws can cause injury, and wombats have a vicious bite as well. In rare cases people have been knocked over and mauled by angry wombats, and your best bet if you ever upset one is to climb a tree and wait it out — unless there’s an angry koala in the tree, in which case you’re pretty much screwed. The wombat is another in the long list of Australian creatures that look cute but secretly want to kill you.

If you have an abiding love of wombats despite this, which would certainly be understandable, you can always celebrate Wombat Day, which takes place every year on October 22, the traditional start of spring in Australia.