Autumn 2004
Marsupial of the Season

 

The Numbat
(Myrmecobius fasciatus)

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General 

Myrmecobius is derived from the Greek myrmex, ant, and bios, life or way of life and fasciatus is derived from Latin meaning ‘banded’.    It is also known by the names of Walpurti and Banded Anteater  

There are a two extant subspecies, although the second of these is now probably extinct:-

Myrmecobius fasciatus fasciatus -  inhabits eucalypt forested areas in the south-west of the continent

and

Myrmecobius fasciatus rufus used to be found in arid north-west border area of South Australia and Western Australia and was previously widespread across southern Australia.   Its range was from western New South Wales across to Western Australia, but now, if it still exists, maybe restricted to a few isolated pockets in Western Australia and northern South Australia.

The Numbat is one of the few marsupials that is diurnal (as opposed to nocturnal like most of our native marsupials) and will be active during daylight hours foraging for its main source of food i.e. termites.     They sleep at night in a hollow log, padded with shredded bark or plant material that it has gathered.    They usually have several burrows or hollow logs in their home range, sometimes using them as ‘refuge’ in the case of danger.     When sniffing the air, Numbats frequently stand on their hind legs, and will scamper away quickly and hide when danger is apparent.      They are solitary animals, with home ranges extending to areas as large as 100 hectares.

Description

It is mostly red to reddish-brown in colour, with white stripes around the rump area.  The underside of the animal is pale grey to white.  Numbats have a distinctive bushy tail, rather like that of a squirrel, flecked with brown and white hairs.  The fur or hair is harsh or coarse and in some parts of the body up to 30mm long.   They have a dark-coloured stripe that runs through the eye, from the mouth to the ear, with a white stripe underneath.     They are slightly built animals, having a body about the same size as a large rat.    They have a head and body length of 200 to 270mm, with the tail being between 160 to 210mm and rarely reach more than 500grams in weight.

They also do not have the powerfully developed forelimbs like most other termite eaters around the world, but have delicate limbs with small claws and are usually quite docile when handled.     Numbats have a comparatively long snout and large ears.

Habitat

Their preferred habitat is eucalypt forests where there are plenty of hollow logs and branches which they can use as homes and where there is a plentiful supply of termites.    They seem to have a preference for areas where there are stands of  Wandoo Gum (Eucalyptus wandoo) and Jarrah (E. marginata) and to a lesser extent in country with lots of Mulga trees (Acacia aneura).    The Acacia woodland is probably where M. fasciatus rufus would have been found (or is still to be found if it still exists).

Breeding

Numbats become sexually mature at the age of 11 months.  Mating takes place between the months of December and March.     Females have four teats and even though these animals are marsupials, they do not have a pouch.    Each litter consists of up to 4 young, with the birth taking place approximately 14 days after mating.    The young cling to long hairs on the underside of the mother, where they remain firmly attached to a teat until they are fully furred.

After this, they detach from the teats and are left in a den while the mother scavenges for food.  When they are large enough, the young ride on the back of the mother whilst she is scavenging, using their teeth and claws to hold on.

They are fully weaned and independent at the age of around 7 months of age.

Diet

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The Numbat is the only marsupial adapted to feed on termites.  It has poorly-developed teeth and a long cylindrical tongue and snout, which enables it to collect insects easily.  Numbats easily dig termites out of hollow or rotting logs, and shallow nests, but is not strong enough to be able to penetrate a free-standing termite mound.

Status in the wild

Rare/Endangered.      M. fasciatus rufus is considered to be extinct.    Its demise could be put down to a number of things, including habitat destruction, the introduction of the cat and the fox and most probably bushfires as well.    This animal does not dig burrows or climb trees or is even a fast runner, so if its log home is burnt in a fire, then the animal is likely to succumb also.    For the same reasons it would also be no match for the aforementioned predators.

References

Strahan, Ronald (1983) edited by “The Complete Book of Australian Mammals” published by Angus & Robertson.
Cayley, Neville (1987) “What Animal is That” published by Angus & Robertson
Jones, Frederick Wood (1923) “The Mammals of South Australia”
Troughton, Ellis (1973).  “Troughton’s Furred Animals of Australia” Angus & Robertson Publishers,
Cronin, Leonard (1991).  “Key Guide to Australian Mammals”
National Library of Australia,
Morcombe, Irene and Micheal (1979).  “Australian Mammals In Colour”
A.H. & A.W. Reed Pty Ltd,

 
 
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