Numbat or Banded Anteater (Myrmecobius fasciatus)
Image: the Numbat, the animal emblem of Western Australia
Although it was once widespread across southern Australia, the Numbat has become extinct throughout most of its range and today survives only in small patches of forest in the south-west of Western Australia.
The destruction of its habitat through clearing for farming and the introduction of foxes with European settlement led to the decline of the species. While the Numbat is still endangered, listed as vulnerable, the outlook is gradually improving. Following fox control, new populations have been established in nature reserves and forests. As part of its Native Species Breeding Program, the Perth Zoo is breeding Numbats for release into protected habitat. To date more than 60 Numbats have been released back into the wild.
The Numbat is a unique pouchless marsupial with a distinctive appearance. It is a small animal with a slender body and reddish-brown coat that has prominent white bands, and a long bushy tail. The adult Numbat is about 41 centimetres long (including the tail) and has a narrow, pointed snout and dark stripes across the eyes.
Its preferred habitat is woodland, with thick undergrowth and littered with fallen branches. It shelters in hollow logs, trees and burrows and searches during daylight hours for termites. In the wild, the Numbat eats an exclusive diet of termites. Since it is not strong enough to break into termite mounds themselves, the Numbat waits for termites to be out in their shallow feeding galleries (the underground 'highways' that termites travel in from the nest to feeding areas). With its sharp claws it digs insects out of logs and sub-soil down to the termite galleries and uses its long tongue to flick the termites into its mouth. An adult consumes up to 20,000 termites per day, the equivalent of ten per cent of its body weight.
Unlike most marsupials, the Numbat is active during the day, with its lifestyle being closely linked to termite movements. In summer, termites are out early in the day but retreat deeper into the soil as the day becomes hot. During that part of the day, Numbats retreat to a cool hollow log and wait for later in the cooler part of the afternoon when termites are close to the surface again. In winter, the termites are not active until late morning when the soil begins to warm but remain active until dusk. The Numbat stays out at the same time to feed.
The Numbat is basically a solitary animal, each with its own home range, the boundaries of which are fairly flexible. In summer, before the breeding season, the male Numbats roam a long way from their home range in search of females. Four young are usually born between January and March. They are carried or nursed by the mother through winter. When they grow fur, they are placed in a small underground chamber lined with grass and leaves, at the end of a one to two metre long burrow, while their mother hunts for termites. They are quite active and will play near the nest during her absence. The young are able to fend for themselves by October and disperse by the end of the year.
The Numbat was proclaimed the animal emblem of Western Australia on 25 July 1973.
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