A Pocket Full of Fun: Parma Wallaby Baby

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This photo was taken just 10 days after Tinka was found on the ground, ejected from her mother's pouch.

We are very pleased to be able to show off our beautiful little parma wallaby baby here in the San Diego Zoo’s Neonatal Assisted Care Unit. Though little Tinka (an Aboriginal name meaning “daylight”) has been with us now for nearly three months, we have kept her out of the public view to provide the proper care for her.

Here's Tinka when she was still in her mother's pouch at about six weeks of age. Photo taken April 7, 2011.

Our veterinarians and nutritionists were keeping a close eye on Tinka’s mom, who was losing weight and had some health problems. They knew that this female had a young joey (baby) in her pouch, so she was monitored closely for several weeks. (It was estimated that the joey was born on February 22, 2011, and crawled up into her mother’s pouch soon after, as all marsupial joeys do.) On the morning of July 5, keepers found a tiny female joey weighing only 71 grams (only a little over 2 ounces!) lying on the ground at the morning check. The hairless baby had been ejected from her mother’s pouch and was dirty and cold. Veterinarians were alerted and the animal was immediately transferred to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine.

Meg Sutherland-Smith, D.V.M., was on hand to attend to Tinka. She examined the baby, carefully rinsed the dirt from Tinka’s eyes, ears, and mouth, started her on antibiotics, and gave her some fluids. Tinka was soon strong and stable enough to be transferred to the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit in the Zoo’s Children’s Zoo for further care.

Pouch young like Tinka that have been orphaned or rejected provide us with some special challenges. Since marsupials are born very tiny and unformed (about the size of a kidney bean), they continue to develop inside the mother’s pouch after birth. Once ejected from Mom’s pouch, we must offer a substitute because these fragile youngsters will not survive without it. We provide an artificial pouch developed and designed by the Melbourne Zoo in Australia. The pouch provides a place where the baby feels safe and secure. It is suspended in an incubator so the young animal will be kept warm and moist. Since the skin is hairless, fragile, and thin, we must care for and maintain it. We apply a special lotion and take care to keep everything immaculately clean.

Next, since these petite babies have such a tiny, narrow palate and shallow suckling response, they require a unique nipple. The marsupial nipple is soft, long, and narrow. In addition to the special nipple, we also have to provide a particular artificial milk formula. This formula comes to us all the way from Australia and is formulated specifically for marsupials.

To further simulate the environment of the pouch, we must keep the environment calm. Lights are dimmed and voices are kept low. Young joeys can be prone to stress, so we try to take tender, empathetic care at all times. We disturbed Tinka only at bottle-feeding times, which took place every three hours around the clock for weeks. We tenderly bathed her sensitive skin, applied lotion, and monitored the incubator environment carefully.

Tinka soon learned to communicate with us with a series of soft vocalizations and body gestures. A miniscule hiss meant that she was not pleased with our cautious labors, and a shove with her miniscule hands told us she had had enough formula. We soon found out that for one so small, Tinka has a lot of personality and an opinion on every subject!

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Little Guenon and Mother.

Note: Janet will send us another post describing Tinka’s development. In the meantime, we have a video of Tinka, now 7 1/2 months old, if you would like a “sneak peek.”

Update: Ten new pouches for Tinka have been purchased! Thank you to all who contributed on our Wish List!