The joey’s mother was crushed by a falling branch early last November orphaning her five week old joey. Hand-rearing was not an option as when joeys are born they are furless, pink and the size of a jellybean. They need to remain in the pouch for 246-275 days so they can develop properly.
Since 1990 Adelaide Zoo has been pioneering a special technique known as cross-fostering. This takes the joey of an endangered species and places them in the pouch of a less endangered wallaby species. Keepers had no idea if this process would work for a tree kangaroo but they knew it was worth a try.
Up until this point ‘cross-fostering’ had only been used for wallaby to wallaby fosters. It is normally used to accelerate the breeding of the endangered species sometimes meaning they can have eight times the number of joeys. This has helped to increase the captive populations of a number of wallabies incredibly quickly.
Dr David McLelland, Adelaide Zoo Veterinarian explained some of the difficulties with this process, “We’ve had great success over the years’ cross-fostering between wallaby species, but the specialised breeding technique has never been used on a tree kangaroo.”
“Not only are tree kangaroos distant relatives of wallabies, they also have many behavioural and physical differences. We had no idea if the yellow-foot would accept the tree kangaroo joey, but if we wanted to save the joey we had to try our luck,” he added.
The joey took well to the teat during the procedure to place him in the pouch and then stayed attach over the following days. As time went on it could be seen wriggling in the pouch confirming that it was alive.
Gayl Males, Team Leader of Natives at Adelaide Zoo said, “We were so excited when we confirmed the joey had made it past the first critical 24 hour period. We were uncertain as to whether the joey was going to be accepted. This joey was completely different from other joeys in body shape and behaviour – it certainly wriggled around more than a wallaby joey!”
“The joey, which we named Makaia, first popped its head out of the pouch around the end of January. It was certainly a sight to see a tree kangaroo joey, with its reddish-tan fur, bright blue eyes and long claws riding around in a wallaby!” she added.
Now Makaia has made the next step in her life as Males explained, “He stayed with his wallaby mum for about three and half months until I took over caring for him and in effect became his third mum – He’s certainly a cheeky little fellow and loves running amok, testing the boundaries using my home as his personal playground, climbing on everything, pulling toilet paper off the rolls, but he also loves quiet time cuddling with my husband in the evening while we watch TV.”
It will be 15-18 months before Makia will no longer need milk from his adopted mum.
Now he is beginning his life as an international celebrity beginning with a spread in Australian Geographic which is on sale from Friday. He has also starred in a video showing his journey which you can watch below.
Keepers also plan to share the details of their success with zoos around the world in the hope that it will assist with the internationally coordinated captive-breeding program.
Photo Credit: Adelaide Zoo