FOSSIL 77: September 2020

“What are you?” my grandmother used to ask me. Usually when I’d done something overly irritating or stupid. I never had an answer then, nor did I find one in the following six decades. But now at last I have something that will do. So what am I? Well, there in a recent copy of my morning paper was a bald – if tentative – solution. FOSSIL THOUGHT TO BE EARLY FORM OF WOMBAT, it read. The triumphant archaeologists describe me as a huge hairy creature with shovel-shaped hands and “unusual” teeth.

It seems I am a new, hitherto unknown, member of a group called the Vombatiformes – a vulgar Latin word meaning “wombat-shaped things”. Accordingly, I rushed to the Encyclopedia of Mammals (Vol 2) to find out more about my new relatives. Wombats, I learned, are marsupials just like kangaroos, except that their pouches are upside down to stop soil falling in as they dig. Whether this also causes the babies to fall out was not explained. An added peculiarity is that their faeces are cubic, though - as the writer coyly puts it – “the method by which the wombat produces them is not well understood”.

My first reaction was disappointment. If I had to be a wombat at all, why did I have to be an “early form” thereof? How much nicer to have been a later, more suave and sophisticated, model. A nattily-suited lounge wombat. By then I might perhaps have developed smooth, clear skin, slim, graceful hands and a mouth full of perfect choppers – to say nothing of more conventional lavatorial habits. Lord know how my social life might have improved. But no, I had to be a crude prototype – all huge and hairy and snaggle-toothed.

However, as I learned more, things brightened up considerably. Wombats have several big plusses. Their backsides, for example. These are large and round and very tough and made mostly of cartilage (something the Khardashians would pay serious money for). They are also a key feature in their survival strategy. When chased by a dingo, a wombat will dive into the nearest tunnel, using its fang-proof bottom as a sort of cork to block all entry. Dingo exits stage left, cursing and grinding his teeth. That’s some compensation.