A baby koala has been saved in a daring, possibly world-first medical procedure at an Australian wildlife sanctuary.
The male joey koala, named Hermit, was just two days old and looked like a pink jelly bean when he was transferred from his sick mother’s pouch into a healthy, surrogate* mother’s pouch to live and grow until he was old enough to survive on his own.
Hermit is now almost two years old, weaned* from his surrogate mother, whose name is Crumble, and living in the eucalypts at Brisbane’s Lone Pine Sanctuary in Queensland.
Lone Pine Sanctuary vet Dr Galit Rawlinson carried out the procedure, carefully putting her hand in the pouch, gently releasing Hermit from the teat* he was feeding from, placing him in Crumble’s pouch and putting Crumble in a tree to recover.
At the time, Hermit was less than 2cm long, covered in just pink skin rather than fur and had underdeveloped eyes, ears and back legs.
Dr Rawlinson is still caring for Hermit now. Hermit’s biological* mother, Zoom, was old and unwell when she gave birth to Hermit. Transferring the joey to Crumble was the only real option available at the time.
“We weighed up the benefits and risks, knowing that he wasn’t going to survive and it wasn’t going to help her,” Dr Rawlinson said.
“We needed to do something to change the balance of things. We didn’t have anything to lose.
“We thought through the process. Crumble was an experienced mum but what we didn’t know was if it would damage the baby, would it attach and would Crumble lactate*. We still felt it was worth the risk.”
Marsupial* babies are born extremely underdeveloped, like an unborn foetus* of other mammal species. After birth, the joey koala uses its sense of touch and smell to find its way into the pouch and onto one of two teats to feed on milk. The joey then usually spends about six to seven months in their mother’s pouch.
“The joeys aren’t viable* that much below that time” Dr Rawlinson said.
“They need to be about four to five months before they start being doable (able to survive).
“I’m absolutely rapt*. She has raised him as she would if he was hers.”
Zoom died a few months after the procedure, meaning she would not have been able to look after Hermit for as long as he needed her to.
“We did lose Zoom but at 15 she was our oldest female.
“Crumble is about eight so she’s mature, she’s had a few joeys and she’s in her prime.”
Female koalas usually become pregnant every 18 months to two years. Crumble was healthy but for an unknown reason didn’t become pregnant, so she was the obvious choice as a surrogate mother.
Sanctuary staff decided not to share news of the procedure until now, when they were sure Hermit was fit and well and not disadvantaged by his adventures.
Dr Rawlinson has since successfully transferred another joey, called Myrtle, to a surrogate mother. Myrtle is now about 18 months old and going well.
“Myrtle’s mother had lost four joeys in a row and we didn’t know if it was a pouch problem but we wanted (Myrtle’s mother) represented genetically*.”
Dr Rawlinson believes Hermit could be the first koala to have been transferred to a surrogate at such a young age, though she knows of a successful surrogacy of a young, endangered, yellow-footed rock wallaby.
Dr Rawlinson has been a vet at Lone Pine Sanctuary for 20 years and before that worked as a keeper at the sanctuary for 10 years while she was studying to be a vet.
“To be a vet was my lifelong ambition as a child,” she said.
She will travel to Sydney next week to meet vets from other zoos and sanctuaries around Australia so they can share their experiences and learn from each other.
VIDEO: This joey is beginning to explore the world outside mum’s pouch at Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria. Credit: Zoos Victoria via Storyful
Koalas are only found in Australia.
Their scientific name is: Phascolarctos cinereus
They are the only surviving species of their family.
Koalas’ closest living relative are wombats.
Adult koalas weigh about 14kg and are 60-85cm long.
They eat only the leaves of a few species of eucalypt trees and have a special section of intestine to help digest the leaves.
Koalas are listed as vulnerable* to extinction. Much of their habitat has been lost because of clearing of forests where they lived.
- surrogate: stand in
- weaned: no longer breastfeeding
- teat: nipple
- biological: genetically related; part of the family
- lactate: make breast milk
- marsupial: a group of mammals; the young are mostly carried in a pouch
- foetus: unborn baby
- viable: able to survive
- rapt: over the moon with excitement
- genetically: related to genetics
- vulnerable: at risk of
- What does a newborn koala look like?
- How old are Crumble and Hermit and how old was Zoom when she died?
- Why is a wallaby mentioned in this story?
- When did Dr Rawlinson decide to be a vet?
- How do koalas digest eucalypt leaves and other animals can’t?
LISTEN TO THIS STORY
1. Design a Card
Design (and, if you want, make) a special thankyou card for Dr Rawlinson. The design and words on your card should be all about her work with the koalas at Lone Pine Sanctuary.
Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Visual Communication Design
Is this kind of work worth it? Write a list of all of the RISKS (or things that could be bad or go wrong). Then write a list of all the BENEFITS (good things) of the work that Dr Rawlinson is doing. Then, write a paragraph that answers the question. Use the points in your list to back up your ideas.
Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.
HAVE YOUR SAY: Have you ever seen a koala? Describe where you saw it and what it was doing.
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.