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marsupial enrichment

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Marsupial Nightlife

A female wombat looks into a palm roll

A female wombat looks into a palm roll

While doing marsupial observations at the San Diego Zoo, I often hear people really excited to see the wombats. They rush over, looking from the deck at the tree kangaroos. Nope, no wombats in sight… maybe they are in the front! Rushing to the front, the wombats are consistently found doing one thing and one thing alone: sleeping. This is usually disappointing for many zoo visitors; however, they are doing exactly what they would be doing in the wild. Wombats are nocturnal, which means they spend the day sleeping but wake up in the evening to forage, travel, and perform other necessary behaviors.

I realized this, too, in my enrichment study (see post, Puzzles for Tree Kangaroos). On the days that enrichment was provided in the morning, I would be more likely to observe interaction than if the enrichment was set out in the afternoon. However, most of the interaction with the enrichment items took place when I wasn’t even around. How do I know this? Well, before I would leave after a day’s observations, I would take a mental note of what the enrichment item looked like and where in the exhibit it was located. Then, as soon as I returned to the Zoo in the morning, for another day of observation, I would check out the wombat exhibit to see what the enrichment looked like after being left in the exhibit overnight.

A mulch pile with wallaby footprints in it after being left in the exhibit overnight

A mulch pile with wallaby footprints in it after being left in the exhibit overnight

What I would usually find is that the enrichment item had not survived the night. In other words, the palm rolls would be in pieces spread throughout the exhibit, and the mulch piles would be decimated to a thin layer. I heard similar reports from keepers about the wallabies. I would observe little interaction during the day; however, overnight the wallabies would eat all of the food out of puzzle feeders and leave evidence (usually in the form of lots of poop) that they were spending quite a bit of time around the enrichment items.

A wombat walks on a palm roll after breaking it apart.

A wombat walks on a palm roll after breaking it apart.

What does this mean for my enrichment study? I can confidently say that our marsupials ARE interacting with the enrichment. BUT, it is very important that we keep the nocturnal nature of these creatures in mind when providing them with these enrichments or challenges and give them the opportunity to have access to the items when they will be awake and ready to interact.

So, if you find yourself at an exhibit with sleepy animals, don’t be upset or discouraged! It would be very stressful for them to be pulling lots of “all day-ers,” so it is best for them to be active at similar times to when they would be in the wild.

I know it is disappointing, but this is the last marsupial enrichment post from me. I’m finishing up my internship and will be headed back to Idaho to finish my degree and graduate! Wish me luck, and don’t forget to visit the marsupials next time you venture to the San Diego Zoo!

Lauren Kline is a Bonner Summer Student Intern in the Behavioral Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. We wish her the best of luck as she continues her studies!

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Monkeying Around…with Marsupials!

A wombat investigates a palm roll tunnel.

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.

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.