Surrogate Moms Boost Rare Wallaby Births

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September 24, 2009—To help save South Australia's rare black-footed wallaby, researchers are taking joeys from the wild and placing them in surrogate pouches, encouraging wild moms to trigger "backup" pregnancies.

Video by Public Television's Wild Chronicles, from National Geographic Mission Programs

Unedited Transcript

ITS EARLY IN THE MORNING IN AUSTRALIAS APY LANDS, AND NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC GRANTEE LAURA RUYKYS AND HER TEAM ARE ON THE MOVE

FROM THE 4 BY 4

TO THE TRAIL

TO STEEP, ROCKY CLIFFS

THEYRE AFTER THE BLACK-FOOTED ROCK WALLABY OR WARRU SOUTH AUSTRALIAS MOST ENDANGERED MAMMAL.

THESE SMALL MARSUPIALS WERE ONCE COMMON THROUGHOUT THE RANGES OF CENTRAL AUSTRALIA.

BUT NOW, BECAUSE OF INTRODUCED PREDATORS, HUNTING, AND CHANGES IN LAND MANAGEMENT FEWER THAN A HUNDRED REMAIN IN THE WILD.

LAURA RUYKYS: "THE SCALE OF THAT DECREASE IS JUST ENORMOUS, WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT THE FACT WHEN THE EARLY EXPLORERS WHEN THEY CAME ONTO THE APY LANDS, AND INTO THESE NORTHERN AREAS, THEY DESCRIBED THE WARRU AS SWARMING ALL OVER THE HILLS."

LAURA IS PART OF THE WARRU RECOVERY TEAM AN ALL-STAR BRIGADE OF BIOLOGISTS, ZOOKEEPERS, VETS, AND INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS DEDICATED TO SAVING THESE IMPERILED ANIMALS.

WHEN THEY CAPTURE A WALLABY A RUNNER CARRIES IT DOWN TO A WAITING VET.

FIRST, HE SEDATES HIS FURRY PATIENT WITH GAS TO KEEP HER FROM HOPPING AWAY DURING THE EXAMINATION.

BUT THIS ISNT A ORDINARY CHECK UPTHEYRE LOOKING FOR FEMALES WITH BABIES TUCKED AWAY IN THEIR POUCHESTO TAKE PART IN A VERY SPECIAL ACCELERATED BREEDING PROGRAM.

REPRODUCTIVE SPECIALIST DAVID TAGGART EXPLAINS:

DAVID TAGGART: "THERES A TECHNIQUE THAT WEVE DEVELOPED RECENTLY CALLED CROSS FOSTERING AND ITS A TECHNIQUE THAT USES CLOSELY RELATED SURROGATE SPECIES TO REAR THE POUCH YOUNG OF AN ENDANGERED SPECIES."

IN THIS CASE, THE WARRUS COUSIN, THE MORE COMMON YELLOW-FOOTED ROCK WALLABY, WILL SERVE AS THE FOSTER MOTHER.

DAVID TAGGART: THE YELLOW-FOOT TAKES ON THE BURDEN OF LACTATING AND NURSING THOSE YOUNG TO INDEPENDENCE, AND THAT FREES UP THE WARRU MOTHERS TO CYCLE AGAIN, MATE, AND HAVE ANOTHER YOUNG. AND SO IN THIS WAY, WE CAN ACCELERATE THE BREEDING OF THE ENDANGERED WARRU FROM ONE YOUNG ANNUALLY, TO UP TO 6 OR 8 YOUNG ANNUALLY."

BUT THE BABY HAS TO BE THE RIGHT SIZE FOR THE CROSS FOSTERING TO WORK.

UNFORTUNATELY THIS JOEY IS A LITTLE TOO BIG.

SO WHEN THE EXAM IS OVER, THE RESEARCHERS CARRY MOM BACK UP THE HILL AND RELEASE HER WHERE SHE WAS CAUGHT. MEANWHILE, BACK AT CAMP, THE TEAM HAS FOUND A FEMALE WITH A JOEY THATS JUST THE PERFECT SIZE.

THEY CAREFULLY TRANSFER THE TINY WALLABY FROM ITS MOTHERS POUCH TO A PORTABLE INCUBATOR.

BUT NOT TO WORRY THE MOTHER WONT BE WITHOUT A BABY FOR LONG.

THE UNIQUE WALLABY REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM KEEPS A SECOND FERTILIZED EMBRYO ON STANDBY FOR JUST SUCH AN OCCASION.

IN A MONTH, ITS LIKELY SHELL GIVE BIRTH TO ANOTHER JOEY.

NATS: THERE YOU ARE, MICK!

ALL PACKED UP AND READY TO GO, THIS YOUNGSTER IS IN STORE FOR AN AIRBORNE JOURNEY OF NEARLY A THOUSAND MILES.

ITS 1 AM WHEN THE TEAM ARRIVES IN ADELAIDE, WHERE THE JOEY IS ONCE AGAIN HANDED OFF AND RUSHED TO THE ADELAIDE ZOO.

VETS EXAMINE AND WEIGH THE YOUNGSTER

AND CAREFULLY PLACE HIM IN HIS NEW FOSTER MOTHERS POUCH

IT DOESNT TAKE HIM LONG TO FIND WHAT HE NEEDSA WELL EARNED MEAL OF FRESH MILK.

AND HE SHOULD PROBABLY DRINK UP, THERES A LOT RIDING ON HIS SURVIVAL.

WHEN HES OLD ENOUGH TO SURVIVE ON HIS OWN RESEARCHERS WILL MOVE THE JOEY TO THIS CAPTIVE BREEDING FACILITY AT THE NEARBY MONARTO ZOO.

HERE, HELL GROW UP AMONG HIS OWN KIND WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM SOME HUMAN FRIENDS.

THE HOPE IS THAT THESE YOUNGSTERS WILL GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY GIVING RISE TO A WHOLE CAPTIVE-BRED GENERATION OF WARRU THAT WILL SOMEDAY RETURN TO THE WILDAND PERHAPS RECLAIM THEIR FORMER HABITAT.

LAURA RUYKYS: "MY HOPE FOR THE WARRU IS THAT IN THE LONG TERM IT WOULD BE AMAZING TO HAVE THE ANIMALS SWARMING ALL OVER THE HILLS AS THEY USED TO BE IN THE PAST."

AND WHILE ITS UNLIKELY THAT LAURA AND HER TEAM WILL WITNESS A SWARM OF WALLABIES IN THEIR LIFETIME

ONE THINGS NEARLY CERTAIN,

AS LONG AS THEYRE ON WATCH, THE SUN WONT GO DOWN ON THE WARRU.

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