By Kristen E. Strubberg Editor-in-Chief
They may not be your typical Kanga an Roo from The Hundred Acre Wood, but their story is just as enchanting. Makaia, an endangered Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo was orphaned by a freak accident while still in his mother’s pouch. Luckily, quick action by Adelaide Zoo veterinarians and zookeeper found Makaia a foster mom: the yellow-footed rock wallaby Missy Fitton.
Born in November 2014, Makaia was still a peanut sized embryo when his mother was died from injuries sustained from a fallen tree branch – an unfortunate hazard of the tree kangaroo’s arboreal nature. Luckily for the 47 day old Makaia who was still far to young to be hand-reared, staff at the Adelaide Zoo knew what to do.
The zoo had pioneered “cross-fostering”, a surrogacy of sorts, for endangered wallaby species, In this reproductive strategy, a newborn wallaby joey is transplanted to a lactating foster mother. This permits first wallaby mother to become fertile again and thus reproduce more quickly. While very successful with wallabies, the tactic had never been tried with other marsupials, let alone the distantly related tree kangaroo.
For Makaia, however, cross-fostering was the only option. Enter surrogate wallaby mom Missy Fitton. As quickly and safely as possible for both joey and Missy, Makaia – weighing only 29 grams – was transferred to Missy’s pouch. Vets and keepers alike watched eagerly for signs of growth.
To the joy of Team Leader Gayl Males, only days later she observed “tiny ripples of movement” confirming Makaia was nursing from Missy’s milk and thriving. Finally , on 31 January 2015, Makaia poked his head out of Missy’s pouch.
At first glance the two made an odd couple with Makaia’s red-gold fur and blue eyes contrasting Missy’s grey and tan coloring. All the same, Missy devotedly cared for her foster son while still mothering her own natural offspring. One difference that they could not overcome, however, was the difference in rate of growth between wallaby and tree kangaroo.
After almost four months together, Makaia was too big for Missy’s pouch and needed to be hand reared. For now, Makaia splits his time between Adelaide Zoo and Gayl Males home until his is weaned from formula milk sometime between 15-18 months of age.
Adelaide Zoo hopes this cross species cross-fostering success will encourage research into the technique and create new opportunities for cooperative rearing between different endangered species.