Read Janet’s previous post, A Pocketful of Fun: Parma Wallaby Baby.
We use developmental markers rather than birth dates to determine gestational age in marsupials. Some of these markers include eyes open or closed; ears pinned or erect; and the presence, location, and amount of body fur. When she arrived in the San Diego Zoo’s Neonatal Assisted Care Unit, Tinka’s eyes were opened, but her ears were still pinned to her head, and she had thin, pink skin with no body fur whatsoever. These markers told us that Tinka was very young and vulnerable. We were careful not to be too confident about her survival.
We were grateful to gain the valuable experience of caring for a marsupial this young and unformed. In those first few weeks, we said each day “I can’t believe she is still with us!” Tinka gained weight very slowly and slept soundly in her pouch between feedings. We kept things in the back room where she was housed very quiet and peaceful for her to simulate the environment inside her mom’s pouch. We carefully bathed her sensitive skin, monitored the environment, and kept our voices low and her bottle feedings on time as we patiently waited for signs of development.
The first subtle sign of change came in mid-July, when we noticed her right ear standing up a bit better. Her left one stubbornly lagged behind and remained pinned, giving her a comical, lopsided look for a while. Next came a few downy-soft whiskers above her eyes and around her muzzle. By the end of July, there was a subtle darkening of the skin along her back, on her muzzle, and top of her head. Then, a miracle of sorts: Tinka began to sprout fine peach fuzz in the darkened areas. We were delighted with these developments but remained downright superstitious about naming Tinka. She was still so tiny and helpless; we had a long way to go.
Tinka became somewhat of a princess, resting in her cozy pouch just waiting for the next bottle and more attention to arrive. She used her tiny hands to push away an unwanted bottle or kicked and hissed when grooming went on a little long. We offered Tinka water by a syringe to prevent dehydration, which she alternatively loved and gratefully accepted or utterly rejected by a lofty turn of the head. We discovered that she had many interesting ways of communicating her likes and dislikes (the latter category being larger than the former!) with her caretakers. She had us all willingly stepping and fetching.
By mid-September, Tinka’s peach fuzz had become fur. We looked back on those early photos of her when she was pink and totally naked and couldn’t believe she ever looked like the strange pterodactyl-like creature.
Now Tinka could stand and hop around a little on her own. She began using the small vertical slit in the pouch to enter and exit as she pleased, although her first attempts were upsetting because getting out was easier than getting back in. We helped her a few times, and she soon got the hang of it.
Our Tinka was growing up, and now it was time to switch gears. Life in the pouch was about to change…
Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo.