I recently encountered a trivial question, which asked the reader to identify a specific Australian animal. One of the answers was “numbat.” Thinking that seemed a word created to sound like another, real creature from Australia, I discarded it. I confidently clicked “wombat” and was rewarded with a big, fat, red X.

Turns out numbats are real!

And adorable.

A numbat - photo by Martin Pot

The numbat is a marsupial native to Australia. When Europeans first encountered this animal in the 1830s, they lived nearly across the entirety of the southern half of the continent. Today, they exist in only two small pockets in Western Australia.

Myrmecobius fasciatus is the only member of the family Myrmecobiidae. Another subspecies of numbat used to occupy a second spot in the genus and family but left the planet to extinction sometime before the 1960s. The numbat diverged from other marsupials between 32 and 42 million years ago and features some intriguing differences from other constituents of that famous infraclass.

Unlike most marsupials, the numbat does not have a pouch to carry young. Instead, the babes attach themselves to their mothers for five or six months, until they reach the three-inch mark. Also, most marsupials are nocturnal; the numbat is diurnal (awake during the day). They are the only marsupial active in the daylight! The reason comes down to their food of choice.

An adult numbat - photo by Helenabella

The word “numbat” derives from the Nyungar language of southwestern Australia, in which native speakers called the animals “noombat.” In the Pitjantjatjara dialect, the numbat is known as “walpurti.” Sometimes the numbat might be called a banded anteater, though that nomenclature is erroneous.

Though they have many attributes similar to anteaters and they may appear to fit the moniker, numbats feast entirely on termites. Termites are active during the day, so if the numbat wants nourishment, she must scour for the insects while the sun shines, as all the other marsupial cousins slumber.

A numbat does have teeth, but, by this point in evolutionary history, they are mostly decorative. Termites are soft meals, so chewing isn’t necessary. They do possess the long, sticky tongue associated with an anteater. Termites don’t stand a chance. Each numbat eats approximately 20,000 termites per day!

Unfortunately,  numbats don’t stand a chance against a lot of the pressures introduced by human populations in Australia in the past few centuries. Europeans brought the red fox to the new world, which nearly destroyed the species and shrunk its range to specks on the map. More recently, feral cats have pushed the numbat to the brink of extirpation. Scientists estimate fewer than 1,000 individuals remain in the wild. This statistic easily earns the numbat the designation of “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Thankfully, groups work hard to give these 14- to 18-inch creatures a fighting chance. Australian zoos contain breeding programs, which have produced positive results. Organizations such as Project Numbat have created some fenced or semi-fenced natural areas to reintroduce the numbats free of non-indigenous predators. 

Historical range map of the numbat with extinctions shown in yellow (1800–1910), orange (1910–1930), green (1930–1960), and blue (1960–1980), and with its remaining range shown in black - graphic by Paweł Marynowski
Native range shown in green; reintroduced ranges in pink - IUCN Red List

1,000 individuals in the wild is certainly a scarily low figure. Good news exists, though. The Australian government instituted experimental fox baiting programs at one of the two remaining natural habitats of the numbat. Since the inception of the programs, sightings of the tiny marsupials increased by 40 times! Measures directed toward feral cats have also upped the numbers in annual surveys.

With hard work and increased conscientiousness, hopefully, we can reverse the damage we’ve created for these beautiful beings!

Further Reading and Exploration

Project Numbat – official website

Numbat – Australian Wildlife Conservancy

Numbat on the IUCN Red List

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