Native to Australia, the numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) is also known as the 'banded anteater' or the 'walputi'. This termite-eating marsupial is the only member of the family Myrmecobiidae.
Numbats are about 42 centimetres long from head to tail and are covered mainly in reddish brown fur with six or seven distinct, white bands on their middle and lower back. They have short ears and two black bands that run from the base of the ears to the middle of the snout across the eyes. They also have a bushy tail that is often carried erect and resembles a bottle brush, and a narrow, pointed snout containing 52 teeth of different sizes that only immature numbats use to eat with. Adults may use them to shred bark to use as nesting material.
Another feature is a long, sticky tongue that can stretch to about half the length of its body, and is ideal for eating termites. In order to keep such a long tongue moist, numbats have relatively large salivary glands. Their legs are small and delicate, which is unusual for a termite-eating animal.
Numbats are generally solitary animals that spend most of their time hunting during the day. They have been known to hunt in the morning and late afternoon in the summer and the middle of the day in the winter. They are totally diurnal, reflecting the activity of their termite prey, and are the only Australian marsupial that is active only during the day. Each numbat occupies a home range of their own, but territorial boundaries are usually flexible. Young numbats will remain in the family area for the first nine months of their lives.
The numbat's main predators are goannas1, birds of prey such as wedge-tailed eagles and peregrine falcons, foxes and feral cats and dogs. Their colouring helps the numbat to blend in with the Australian bush during the day, and they have even been known to expand their chest and mid-body to wedge themselves inside hollow logs. This, together with the ability to turn over inside the narrowest of logs, aided by their flat rumps, makes it very difficult for a predator to extract them. Numbats are remarkably timid and gentle when handled.
Numbats eat termites almost exclusively, occasionally eating other types of ants. They have been known to eat up to as many as 20,000 termites in a day, eating the diurnal termites that are found in the fallen logs and branches in their home ranges. Instead of breaking open trunks and branches, numbats dig out the termites from tunnels in the soil, and so they have not evolved large, muscular limbs. They locate termites using their sense of smell, then dig them out of the soil with their front claws and extract them with their tongues. Even though numbats have teeth they usually swallow termites whole, and so, in captivity, they have been fed on a mix of milk, egg and custard with vitamin supplements with 10% termites mixed in. Numbats are difficult to keep in captivity due to their particular diet.
Numbats will commonly give birth to four young per litter between January and March. Females do not have a 'pouch' as such but rather an indented, mammary patch on the underbelly with four teats covered by long hairs. The young are born tiny, hairless and helpless, and must climb to their mother's teats. They will stay attached to the teat until they grow fur and are too large to remain there. Their mother will carry them on her back and leave them to sleep in a grass-lined chamber located at the end of a two-metre-long burrow while she hunts for termites. They are able to fend for themselves at about seven months of age and will leave their mother when they are around a year old. Females reach sexual maturity after one year and males after two years.
Habitat and Distribution
Numbats can be found in areas where termite populations are concentrated, such as wandoo and jarrah2 woodland areas where there is very little undergrowth but plenty of fallen, hollow branches to hide in. They were once known to inhabit the spinifex, mulga and mallee grasslands of southern Australia, and have even been spotted in some Perth suburbs.
Numbats were once found extensively across most of southern Australia ranging from South Australia to Western Australia, including desert regions, and were even believed to be found more easterly in parts of New South Wales and Victoria. They now only inhabit a few places, such as Dryandra and Perup forests, in Western Australia. It is believed that the introduction of feral foxes and cats, as well as the clearing of woodlands, are responsible for the decline in numbat numbers.
An endangered species, the numbat is the faunal emblem of Western Australia, a fact that may have saved it from extinction. They were labelled as the world's most endangered mammal in 1982, but thanks to the efforts of conservationists such as the World Wildlife Fund the numbat is gaining in numbers.