The numbat, also called the marsupial anteater, is a small, slow-moving oddity of Australia. Its reddish-brown body banded with white and black eye stripes on a delicate tapering head, give it a striking appearance. The gentle and squirrel-like numbat grows to be up to 10 inches (25 cm) long.
The numbat is now extinct throughout much of its range. It survives in the wild only in a small area in the southwest corner of Australia.
Isolated from the rest of the world on the continent of Australia, marsupials like the numbat evolved into a myriad of shapes, sizes, and lifestyles (see Spotlight on Australia). The numbat’s better-known relatives are the kangaroos and koalas. Marsupials are mammals that lack a well-developed womb for nurturing their young during a long pregnancy.
Instead, the young are born very premature and must continue their development attached to a teat outside the mother’s body (usually inside a pouch of belly skin, as in kangaroos). Numbats do not have a pouch, so the young, born blind and hairless, must simply cling to the belly fur of their mother while they grow.
This solitary creature is usually active by day, bumbling through the brush with bushy tail held high and pointed snout snuffling the ground in search of food. Numbats eat only ants and termites they catch by using their very long, sticky tongues. A numbat can eat as many as 10,000 ants and termites each day.
Numbats prefer open woodland habitat dominated by eucalyptus trees. They are nimble and can leap and even climb trees. Numbats require hollow, fallen logs for shelter and nesting.
Causes of Endangerment
Numbats have declined drastically since the first European settlers arrived in Australia just 200 years ago. Their habitat has been cleared for agriculture and destroyed by brush fires. In addition, the slow-moving and easy-to-catch numbat is killed by introduced dogs, cats, and foxes.
Although not heavily exploited by humans, numbats are protected from being collected for zoos or novelties by CITES. Hunting or harassing them is illegal under Australian law.
A breeding colony of numbats is maintained at Wanneroo, West Australia. It is unlikely, however, that captive breeding is a solution to the numbat’s decline in the wild because numbats reproduce slowly and there are so few captive animals.
Numbats will survive only if sufficient woodlands are protected from agricultural encroachment and settlement. Clearing of downed trees and logs (for wood and firewood) must be prevented if the numbat is to have places to hide. Control of feral cats and dogs is important to the survival of much of Australia’s wildlife, including the numbat.
Questions for Thought
The numbat seems like such a small, unimportant, little creature. Can you think of what role it might play in the Australian woodland ecosystem?
The European fox was introduced to Australia by people for sport hunting as well as to control rats and rabbits. Rabbits were introduced by people wanting an easy to hunt and familiar food animal. Rats came as stowaways aboard ships.
Foxes, rabbits, and rats have all had devastating effects, both as predators and competitors, on native Australian plants and animals. Do you think it will be possible to control these introduced species and reverse these trends?
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.