How wombats can outrun Usain Bolt

How wombats can outrun Usain Bolt: Just one of the joyous facts in a magical book about the diversity of animal life, by an Oxford academic

  • Katherine Rundell’s series of essays explores delightfully bizarre animal life 
  • The fellow of All Souls College, Oxford covers mostly endangered creatures 
  • Wombats, the golden mole – and even humans – are included in the book 



by Katherine Rundell (Faber £14.99, 208pp)

The simplest ideas are often the best, and few could be simpler than this. It’s a lavishly appointed volume by the academic and renaissance woman Katherine Rundell in which she writes a series of short essays about her favourite strange animals from around the world.

Most of these animals are endangered, many are positively threatened, but each is mesmerisingly unusual. Rundell is fascinated by the sheer bizarre diversity of animal life. Why does something as weird as a giraffe even exist? She doesn’t know, but the fact of its existence is a miracle she wishes to celebrate.

Reading these pages, you can feel your mind opening up as though it were on a rusty hinge. Every page has its ‘did you know?’ moment.

Setters of pub quizzes will fall on this book as though on buried treasure.

According to the book, wombats can run at up to 40 kilometres per hour and maintain that speed for 90 seconds. This means they could outrun Usain Bolt (pictured in 2008)

Rundell, as befits a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, is an assiduous researcher, but also a wonderful writer: charming, slippery and often very funny. ‘This book,’ she says, ‘is offered to you in the guise of a circus ringmaster, with top hat and whip and painted-on moustache.

‘He is not himself very remarkable, but his job is to point at that which is, and his job is to say: dear friends, would you look, only look, at what is here, and would you agree to astonishment, and to love? For love, allied to attention, will be urgently needed in the years to come.’

First up, then, is the wombat, of whom Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote in 1869, ‘[it] is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!’ Rossetti loved wombats.

After his wife died, he started stocking his large garden in Chelsea with wild animals: he had wallabies, kangaroos, a raccoon and a zebu. He thought of acquiring an African elephant but at £400 he thought it was too expensive. However, wombats were more reasonably priced, and he bought a couple.

Rossetti wrote in a letter that one of his wombats had interrupted a seemingly endless monologue by John Ruskin by burrowing its nose between his waistcoat and jacket. He drew them constantly.

One sketch has his mistress taking one for a walk on a lead. Both of them look furious, and both wear halos.

Wombats don’t exactly look streamlined, but can run at up to 40 kilometres per hour and maintain that speed for 90 seconds. This means they could outrun Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever recorded. They can also fell a grown man, and they can attack backwards, crushing potential predators against the walls of their dens with the bone-hard cartilages of their rumps.

‘The shattered skulls of foxes have been found in wombat burrows,’ writes Rundell.

Wombat poos take the form of almost perfect cubes. They give birth once a year in the spring. ‘Like all marsupials, they produce tiny embryonic young, born after only 30 days in utero, which then take refuge in the mother’s pouch and develop further.’ The wombat’s pouch is actually positioned upside down, so the joey’s head looks out between the mother’s hind legs. This is in order to allow her to dig without filling the pouch with mud. Isn’t nature extraordinary?

There’s more, even more about wombats, but let’s move on swiftly to the Greenland shark, a species I must admit I had never heard of. This is the planet’s longest-living vertebrate, and the oldest specimen identified is between 272 and 512 years old.

There are 22 animals in this book, including the wombat (pictured in a stock photo), the golden mole and the Greenland shark

They are not things of beauty. A Greenland shark’s face is blunt and its fins are stunted. Its body has a high concentration of urea, which means that it smells of wee. The urea makes it poisonous to humans when eaten fresh.

Only if you bury the meat for several months and leave it to ferment, then hang it out to dry for several months more, does it become safe. ‘Served in small chunks it is considered, by some, a delicacy, and by others an abomination.’ I think I’ll pass.

No one knows how many Greenland sharks there are. No one has ever seen one give birth; no one has ever seen them mate. They come to the surface occasionally, in the far north where it is cold enough for them, but they prefer to be at the bottom of the ocean, where it’s dark and cold.

‘They have been found as far down as 2,200 metres: more than six Eiffel towers deep.’ Rundell is glad she is not a Greenland shark: ‘I don’t have enough thoughts to fill 500 years. But I find the very idea of them hopeful.

‘They will see us pass through whichever spinning chaos we may currently be living through, and the crash that will come after it, and they will live through the currently unimagined things that will come after that . . .

‘That is their beauty, and it’s breathtaking that they go on. These slow, odorous, half-blind creatures are perhaps the closest thing to eternal this planet has to offer.’

This is some of the best nature writing I have ever read.

There are 22 animals in this book, including the golden mole, which is not actually a mole but, although most are small enough to fit into a child’s hand, is more closely related to the elephant.

‘They have been like nothing but themselves for far longer than us: there are fossil specimens dating back to the Miocene period, which extends from about 23 million years ago to about five million years ago.’

They are the only iridescent mammal known to exist — under different lights their fur shifts through turquoise, navy, purple, gold — and all 21 species live in sub-Saharan Africa, where almost nothing else does.

Rundell ends with ‘the Human’, and gives us a good talking to, which we probably deserve. This is a wonderful, magical book.

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