Woodland Park Zoo's tree-kangaroo joey is ready for its close-up!
The joey was actually born back in June 2012. Being a marsupial, however, it has spent the past half-year growing and developing inside its mother's pocket.
It's only now starting to emerge into the outer-pocket world--and for the rest of this week, you can sneak a peek behind-the-scenes via Webcam to see how mama Elanna and her baby are doing while they're off-exhibit during this time.
Reproductively, marsupials differ significantly from "placental" mammals. A placental mammal's baby develops inside the uterus, sharing a special organ--the placenta--that develops solely to link mother and baby's circulatory system. This amazing setup brings nourishment and oxygen to the baby.
A marsupial, however, does not develop a placenta. A tree kangaroo, for example, is no bigger than a jellybean and weighs less than a paper clip when it leaves the mother's uterus after about a month of development. This blind, unformed creature must then creep through the mother's fur immediately after birth and grope its way into the safety of the pocket, relying on instinct and an inborn sense of direction that propels it upward, against the force of gravity.
There, it latches on to a nipple and stays put for about two months. After that, the growing joey can latch on or release as needed; then, a few months later, it's ready to stick its head out of the pouch and take a look at the world awaiting it.
You can check out the images here. You're most likely to see them during dawn and dusk hours, as Matschie's tree kangaroos are crepuscular species (meaning that they are active during these between-night-and-day periods). You can also enjoy some still images of this beautiful baby on the zoo's blog here.
The joey's birth is highly significant because Matschie's tree kangaroos are an endangered species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that fewer than 2,500 mature kangaroos remain in the wild. The species naturally occurs in low population densities in a very restricted habitat (mountainous regions at high altitudes on the island of New Guinea, Papua New Guinea). Hunting and habitat loss have caused their decline.
The birth is also significant because the joey's father is, according to Woodland Park Zoo's press release, "the highest ranking male in the captive population, which means his genes are most in demand." The joey is the first offspring of this particular male. It is the second for Elanna, who gave birth to a joey in 2011 that unfortunately later died due to an infection that claimed it despite intensive treatment.
Elanna's breeding was coordinated as part of a Species Survival Plan for Matschie's tree kangaroos.An SSP is a breeding plan organized by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to maintain the genetic diversity of zoo animals, requiring zoos to cooperate in breeding animals and transferring them between facilities as necessary. (Other components of an SSP include research, public education, and plans, when possible, for reintroduction of animals into the wild.)
Woodland Park Zoo has long been associated with conservation efforts on behalf of Matschie's tree kangaroos. The zoo's experience inspired the creation of a Tree Kangaroo Husbandry Manual in 1990, a work that is still used by zoos worldwide to care for and breed this endangered species.
In addition, the zoo is home to the international Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP), which was founded by and is still headed up by Woodland Park Zoo's senior conservation scientist, Dr. Lisa Dabek. Dabek and TKCP worked with Conservation International to establish a refuge for tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea in 2009.