Scott Carver is a wildlife ecologist at the University of Tasmania who is perhaps best known for his Ig Nobel Prize-winning research into the physical phenomenon of wombat poop. With that mystery out of the way, he's turned to learning more about the domestic lives of these burrowing marsupials with the help of a specially-designed wombat-sized robot, known affectionately as the "wom-bot."
As New Atlas explains:
Wombats are primarily nocturnal animals, spending the daylight hours sleeping in burrows that they dig in the ground. They change burrows every four to 10 days, often simply moving into a different burrow that was previously dug and occupied by another wombat. It is believed that the parasitic Sarcoptes scabiei mites, which cause sarcoptic mange, may be transferred between wombats when they swap burrows in this fashion.
Researchers from Australia's La Trobe University and University of Tasmania wanted to see how likely this was to be the case, so they developed the new robot. Known as the WomBot, the battery-powered device is 30 cm long (11.8 in), weighs 2 kg (4.4 lb) and moves on tank-like treads at a top speed of 0.15 meters per second (0.5 ft/s).
It's also equipped with temperature and humidity sensors, along with front and rear cameras and LED lights. Live video from those cameras is relayed via an attached Ethernet cable to a human operator up top. Additionally, a gripper on the front of the robot allows data-logging sensors to be placed inside burrows and subsequently retrieved.
Thus far, the wom-bot has been used to explore about 30 wombat burrows. Surprisingly, it's only encountered one actual wombat in that time, which was sleeping and left undisturbed. But who knows what will happen when these beasts finally meet? Will it be Godzilla vs Mecha-Godzilla, but for cube-pooping marsupials? Only time will tell.
The Wombot and the Wombats [Marc Abrahams / Improbable Research]
WomBot robot used to explore and analyze wombat burrows [Ben Coxworth / New Atlas]