The Numbat, also known as the Banded Anteater and, in the Western Desert, the Walpurti, is red-brown in colour on its upper body and paler below with a rump which is is darker than the upper back and contains prominant white transverse bars. The head is narrow with a sharp snout and a dark horizontal eye-stripe. The tail hairs are long and are often erected to give a 'bottle brush' appearance. Males grow to 270 millimeters in head and bodylength with a tail extending a further 180 mm. They weigh around half a kilogram. Females are normally slightly smaller.
Many terrestrial vertebrates - frogs, lizards, birds and mammals - catch and eat insects. Small numbers feed on ants and termites, social insects that usually live in vast numbers in elaborate nests. The anteaters of south America, the Aardvark of Africa, the Pangolins of Asia and the short-beaked Echidna of Australia and New Guinea have powerful forelimbs with strong claws that are used to dig into a nest. They feed by means of a long, mobile, sticky tongue that is inserted into the galleries of a nest when it has been breached. Insects that adhere to the tongue are retained in the mouth as the tongue is flicked in and out.
The Numbat feeds in this manner on termites but without breaching any but the weakest nests. Instead, it exposes the shallow, unfortified runways that radiate from a nest, just below the surface of the ground. In common with other animals that are specialised for feeding on social insects, it has poorly developed teeth.
The Numat is the only living member of the Myrmecobiidae family and it appears to be seriously endangered. Given the prevalence of ants and termites in Australia, it is surprising that only one marsupial utilises this food resource and that it is a rather small animal with unspecialised forelimbs. There appears to be an opportunity or vacancy for an animal about the size and strength of the Giant Anteater of South America that could exploit the vast amount of food concentrated in the large and abundant termite mounds of tropical and subtropical Australia. It is possible that this niche was occupied by some of the large, long-beaked echidnas which were once common in Australia but became extinct long before European settlement. However, the single surviving species, now restricted to the highlands of New Guinea, feeds mainly on worms in forest litter.
A recent dramatic decline in the frequency of sightings indicates a population crash, attributed to drought, predation by the fox, too frequent burning of the habitat, or a combination of these factors. Its present habitat is eucalypt forest, particularly areas dominated by wandoo (Eucalyptus wandoo) or Jarrah (Eucalyptus
marginata), but it was earlier found in Mulga (Acacia aneura) woodland. Areas with these vegetation types provide the Numbat with hollow logs and branches for its shelter and provide food and support for the termites that it eats.
|With a status of rare and scattered, and a strong dependence upon termites for food, Numats are restricted to habitat areas where these insects are reasonably abundant. At the time of European settlement, its range extended from western New South Wales, through South Australia and across much of the southern half of Western Australia but it is now found only in a small area of southwestern Western Australia. Even here, its status is uncertain.|
Although several species of mound-building termites contribute to its diet, the Numbat is not adapted to digging into these structures. Its forelimbs and paws are suited mainly for making shallow excavations in the soil tinder, leaf litter and small dead branches and for opening termite galleries in larger logs. It locates underground termite galleries by scent, uncovers them with its sharply clawed forefeet and rapidly licks up the insects with its mobile, sticky, cylindrical tongue, almost half as long as the head and body.
The flicking movements of the tongue as it explores the branching galleries are too fast for the eye to follow. It has 50-52 teeth but these are poorly developed and, except in very young animals, are not used in eating. Termites picked up on the tongue are swallowed whole. The teeth do, however, serve to grip and move small branches in the course of excavation and to carry nesting material. A further use of the teeth may be to shred the stringy bark of certain eucalypts to produce the nest lining that has been found in hollow logs.
Most unusually among marsupials, and possibly as a response to the pattern of activity of its prey, the Numbat sleeps at night and feeds by day. In the cooler part of the year it is active from dawn to dusk but, in summer, it rests during the heat of the afternoon. A male has been observed to move over an area of 1 square km in 6 weeks.
There is little information on its reproductive biology. The adult has 4 teats and there is no pouch, but the mammary area is protected by the long underbelly hairs extending back over it. The young are born between early January and late March, attaching themselves firmly to the teats and clinging to the short crimped hairs surrounding the nipples. When furred, but still unweaned, they are deposited in a small underground chamber lined with grass, leaves or other debris, at the end of a burrow about 1-2 m long. Juvenile animals are carried on the mother's back. Young Numbats feed independently by October but do not leave the mother's home range until November or December.
The Numbat is the only member of the family Myrmecobiidae and the only marsupial adapted to feeding exclusively on colonial insects. In view of its precarious state, the strongest possible conservation measures are called for.
'Complete Book of Australian Mammals' - Australian Museum, 1983.
Australia's Wilderness Heritage - Flora & Fauna, 1988.
The Numbat is featured on the following Australian coins:
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Last modified: 05 December, 2007