If you’re into marsupials (and who isn’t?), my favorite, hands-down, is the wombat. Not just because they are vegan and terribly, terribly cute, or because they’re a bit lazy and are known Down Under for their ability to find shortcuts between A and B whenever possible — but because they have developed an incredible physical adaptation: The reinforced rump. When a predator attacks a wombat, it runs to its burrow and uses its tough cartilage-filled bum to block the hole. Since the super tough wombat behind is just made from modified skin cells, this physical feature would be a smart place for designers and fabricators to look when they are considering more natural alternatives to non biodegradable, unsustainable plastics.
Photo © Phil Whitehouse
Sure, kangaroos and wallabies can hop, and platypuses have those crazy bills, but in terms of pure practicality, the wombat’s rump is a feat of nature to be beat (literally!) The naturally slow-moving wombat might be called a pacifist since they rarely start a fight, but when they get attacked by other animals, they are quick runners, heading towards their underground burrows (they are the largest mammals that live underground) for safety. But they don’t just hide inside and hope that whatever animal wants to eat them (like a dingo) can’t crawl in after them. They actually push themselves most of the way into their burrow, and stick their butts out, blocking the hole (and protecting whatever young wombats or other family members are inside).
Photo © Rob Chandler
According to Animal Planet, “[The wombat] lacks a meaningful tail and most of its rump is made of cartilage, which makes it nearly impossible for a predator to bite it from behind.” So with its bum outside, and the rest of its body safely inside the burrow, the wombat just waits out the attack. This amazing rear is unique in the animal world (zoologists call it a ‘dermal sheild‘) though other animals use this hardened skin shield in other ways. The Impala has one where blows are most likely to fall during fights between males at rutting time, for example.
Due to their digging and burrowing prowess, the wombat’s marsupial pouch is actually oriented upside-down so it doesn’t get accidentally filled with earth (check out the video above to see how powerfully they dig and burrow). Though they generally have genial dispositions, their instinctual need to burrow, and their need for plenty of land to forage in means they don’t make good pets, not to mention the fact that beneath that fuzzy exterior, they are all muscle — they might measure a couple feet long at most, but they can easily knock an adult person over if they charge at them. (Who says vegans aren’t strong?) But while wombats are adorable, their unusual back end has further-reaching implications that just amusing cocktail party banter.
Photo © Christian Haugen
Biomimicry examines “nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems sustainably.” The wombat’s super durable reinforced rump is a great model for designers looking for natural alternatives to non-biodegradable plastics. A human-created ‘biomaterials shield’ based on the wombat’s defense mechanism could be a great low-energy, degradable material to make things like computer casings, hard packaging materials, luggage, disposable items like pens or lighters, or almost anything else that is currently made from hard plastics. And don’t worry, if this was made in a lab, it certainly wouldn’t look, feel (or smell!) anything like an actual wombat butt!
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)