Monkeying Around…with Marsupials!

A wombat investigates a palm roll tunnel.Have you ever seen big plastic toys in polar bear pools? How about mirrors, swings, or other objects with gorillas and monkeys? But what about marsupial exhibits: have you ever seen interesting objects in with these animals? Probably not very often. Unlike bears, large cats, and primates, we don’t always think about enrichment items for marsupials because they are thought not to be as interested in these items. However, we can’t forget about these guys! Marsupials are curious creatures, and I don’t mean because of their pouch.

My name is Lauren Kline, and I am a behavioral biology summer intern for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. I will be a senior this coming fall at The College of Idaho, where I am a biology major with psychology and crime in society minors. After I graduate, I hope to go to graduate school to further study animal behavior. Let me tell you a little bit about what I will be doing all summer.
My goal is to find out if marsupials, which are pouched mammals such as kangaroos, wombats, and koalas, will interact with different enrichment items if they are presented to them and, if so, how they interact with these items. With the help of the awesome Outback keepers at the San Diego Zoo, we will be presenting four different types of enrichment to three different species (Parma wallabies, Buerger’s tree kangaroos, and the southern hairy-nosed wombats) and monitoring the way they interact with the items.

A tree kangaroo plays with a palm frond.Enrichment can be a variety of things, from puzzle feeders to different ways that food is presented to novel objects, such as large branches or plastic barrels. These enrichment items will allow the animals to perform behaviors that would be necessary in the wild, such as foraging for food, but are not always performed in their enclosures at the Zoo. However, zoos are always trying to make life comfortable for the animals, and giving them novel items to play with and explore should promote their health and well-being.

Although my project has just started, I’ll give you a sneak peek into what I’ve found out so far. The first enrichment the marsupials experienced was different parts of the palm, such as big fronds, a ‘tunnel’ made of palm sheets, and a ‘roll’ made of palm sheets. And…they liked it! They seemed a little unsure of what to do at first, but they were definitely interested and have been spending time around the items, checking things out.

So, if you find yourself at the San Diego Zoo in the Outback near any of these animals and see a young lady with a stopwatch and a clipboard, that’s me! Make sure to look for the enrichment, and ask me if you have any questions! In the coming weeks the marsupials will be provided with dirt and mulch piles, puzzle feeders, and scent markings. Check back here later this summer for another post, and I’ll let you know what new information I’ve discovered about just how curious some marsupials can be!

Lauren Kline is a Bonner Summer Student Intern in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.