Saving Koalas, and Other Marsupials, With Milk Almost as Good as Mom’s

Mr. Rich’s father, Brian Rich, a biochemist, started Wombaroo in 1984 after a pharmaceutical career. He began dabbling in bird food but then saw the need for a powdered milk formula that wildlife caregivers could feed to orphaned kangaroo joeys.

Driving the need for a species specific formulas was that kangaroos could not digest the lactose in cow milk. They also needed higher levels of protein and fat to develop properly.


Sugar gliders, a type of possum native to Australia, are fed a custom milk formula at the Adelaide Zoo. Credit Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

“It started out as an interest and then the demand came,” said Mr. Rich, 78. “It was literally on the kitchen table making up formulas to start with.”

After the kangaroos came milk formulas for echidnas (whose babies are called puggles), sugar gliders, wombats and other Australian native animals.

Some species, like koalas, have a few different formulas available to reflect how a mother’s milk changes as the babies develop.

Last year, Dr. Francis Cabana, an animal nutritionist at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which manages zoos in the country, worked with Wombaroo to produce a milk powder for two manatees. The manatee calves were not suckling with their mothers well and needed hand-rearing. The zoo had used a modified version of a generic milk replacer, but the feces of the baby manatees were not as firm as Mr. Cabana wanted.

“Really, they are like little machines,” he said of the manatees. “You put in the right fuel and they run effortlessly,” he said.

With the new manatee milk formula, the calves’ stool is healthier, according to Mr. Cabana.

It typically takes the team at Wombaroo a few days to create and manufacture a new formula. First, they look into what research and milk analysis have been done for the particular species. If there is no research, they look to animals that might have similar milk. The matches can be surprising, like using the composition of horse milk as a guide to create something for a baby rhinoceros. The two animals have similar digestive systems and lifestyles, according to the Gordon Rich.

The base of each Wombaroo formula is derived from cow’s milk. But a custom mix of different nutrients, fats, proteins and sugars, like vegetable oil and whey protein, are then added to match as closely as possible with the mother’s milk from each animal species. Among the more than two dozen ingredients in the kangaroo formula: biotin, choline, inositol, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, zinc, iron, manganese, copper, iodine and selenium.

Among the other organizations researching milk for exotic baby animals is the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, which has a milk repository with samples from 184 animals.


Deb Barry, a senior keeper at the Adelaide Zoo, feeding an Indian Antelope. The composition of milk for each of the approximately 4,000 species of mammals is different. Credit Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

“Over the last 10 years, the number of species that we know about their milk has probably gone up two or three times,” said Michael L. Power, the scientist who heads up the repository. “Not that long ago, we almost knew nothing about gorilla or orangutan milk.”

Besides building a better understanding of lactation across species, the repository also shares its research with zoos around the world that are hand-rearing young animals. Mr. Power is also tracking down more milk samples, especially from endangered species like pangolins and sloths.

Laws against the trafficking of endangered species can complicate the legal export of an animal’s milk samples. Transportation costs are also significant, with dry ice required so the milk doesn’t spoil.

“You can’t just put a sample of milk in a bottle and put it in your pocket and get on an airplane,” Mr. Power said.


A rescued koala resting in the care of Anne and Don Bigham. Cow milk can cause diarrhea in koala joeys. Credit Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Wombaroo has its own exporting problems. Its formulas are considered dairy products, and the company says it has been too costly to comply with local regulations to ship its formulas to zoos in Europe and the United States.

Obtaining the milk samples in the first place can also be a challenge.

Since 2003, Garry Osthoff, a professor at the University of the Free State in South Africa, has gathered milk samples from animals including gorillas, lions and springbok. Often this happens when the animal is tranquilized.

For an elephant, keepers had to trick a nursing mother into letting them stimulate one of her teats. Professor Osthoff described the milk flow as “like a shower” rather than the linear stream from a cow’s teat.

As human activity continues to put pressure on animal habitats around the world, more species are likely to have to be hand-reared in zoos, Professor Osthoff said, making it an imperative to learn more about the milk of endangered species.

At the Adelaide Zoo in Australia, which shares a research lab with Wombaroo, Ian Smith, a senior veterinarian, was in and out of urgent meetings in late January. A giraffe had given birth a day earlier at Monarto Zoo, the Adelaide Zoo’s open-range counterpart about 43 miles outside the city.

The baby was not feeding, and caregivers had “observed negative interactions” with its mother, Mr. Smith said. “The mum was pushing her away, avoiding it, nudging it away with its head.”

If the situation did not improve within hours, caregivers would isolate the animal and begin a feeding program, starting with colostrum, an ultranutritious substance that mammals produce for a few days after birth to build a baby’s immune system. It could take nine months and about 550 gallons of milk mix before the giraffe is weaned.

Wombaroo had its colostrum product and giraffe formula ready to go. “You have this opportunity to improve its immune system,” said Gordon Rich. “In a couple of days, it goes downhill and you’ve lost that opportunity.”

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Basics: A Baby Wails, and the Adult World Comes Running

The new study is just one in a series of recent reports that reveal the centrality of crying to infant survival, and how a baby’s bawl punches through a cluttered acoustic landscape to demand immediate adult attention.

The sound of an infant’s cry arouses a far quicker and stronger response in action-oriented parts of the adult brain than do similarly loud or emotionally laden noises, like a dog barking or a neighbor weeping.

Scientists also have shown that the cries of many infant mammals share a number of basic sonic properties.

Susan Lingle, a biologist at the University of Winnipeg, and her co-workers have conducted field studies in which they broadcast through loudspeakers the amplified crèche cries of a panoply of animals, including a baby bat, a baby eland, a sea lion pup, a baby marmot, a kid goat and a domestic kitten.

Sometimes the cry was played as is. Sometimes a single feature — the cry’s pitch — was raised or lowered while everything else remained the same. No matter the infantile source of the S.O.S., the reaction of a mother deer grazing nearby was the same: She would bound at top speed toward the speaker as though to her own fawn in distress.

Deer aren’t the only ones to be bamboozled. At a conference on infant wailing held earlier this summer in Italy, Dr. Lingle played an audio clip of cries from a kid, fawn and baby, and asked the audience which was human.

“The majority got it right,” Dr. Lingle said, “but many admitted they really weren’t sure.”

Not all infant mammals keen with the choir. “When a cheetah cub is separated from its mother, it chirps like a bird,” said Patrick Thomas, curator of mammals at the Bronx Zoo. The cry of a baby kangaroo sounds like a cough.

Researchers are searching for any telltale variations in the cries of human infants that might be used diagnostically to identify conditions like autism long before behavioral symptoms arise.


Credit Anita Kunz

Stephen Sheinkopf and Barry Lester of Brown University and their colleagues recently showed that environmental factors, too, may subtly shape the sound of a baby’s cry by impinging on a gene involved in an infant’s response to cortisol, a critical stress hormone.

Harried parents might prefer the scientists focus on a simple translation manual. What is my screaming angel trying to tell me?

Mariano Chóliz, a psychologist at the University of Valencia, and his co-workers have made a first-pass attempt to categorize infant cries. In The Spanish Journal of Psychology, the researchers described laboratory studies in which infants were subjected to various unpleasant procedures known to elicit different emotional states. The resulting cries were videotaped and analyzed.

To provoke anger, the investigators pinned down the babies’ hands or feet and prevented them from moving. To arouse fear, the researchers clapped their hands loudly or dropped a book on the floor. A cry of pain followed “the obligatory vaccination,” according to the study.

Dr. Chóliz found that angry babies tended to keep their eyes half-closed, gazing off to the side as they cried. They steadily amped up the volume of vocalized umbrage. Frightened babies, after an initial hesitation and tensing up of the facial muscles, emitted an explosive cry and kept their eyes open and searching the whole time.

Babies pained by a needle prick cried out immediately, at full force, and squeezed shut their eyes. They maintained that expression and volume for the entire crying bout.

The take-home message for parents: If you happen to drop a heavy object on the floor while the pediatrician is pinning down your baby’s leg for a shot, your child will be in therapy for life.

That humans and other infant mammals are painfully dependent on their elders for survival is reflected in the distinctive spectrographic contours of a cry. An infant cry is characterized by a simple, clear, fundamental tone and a relatively long, unbroken “melodic structure,” as it is perversely called, that falls and rises and falls and tails off in unpredictable ways.

“If a stimulus stays the same, it’s easy to tune out,” said Katherine S. Young, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But something that changes over time is very difficult to ignore.”

Police sirens and other alert sounds mimic this pattern of a slow increase and decrease in pitch, said Dr. Young, “because it grabs and holds your attention.”

By the look of it, the adult brain is primed to be buttonholed.

Studying both superfast brain scans of healthy volunteers and direct electrode measurements in adult patients who were undergoing neurosurgery for other reasons, Dr. Young, with Christine E. Parsons of Aarhus University in Denmark, Morten L. Kringelbach of Oxford University and other colleagues, has tracked the brain’s response to the sound of an infant cry.

The researchers found that within 49 thousandths of a second of a recorded cry being played, the periaqueductal gray — an area deep in the midbrain that has long been linked to urgent, do-or-die behaviors — had blazed to attention, twice as fast as it reacted to dozens of other audio clips tested.

The investigators also detected rapid firing in brain regions that check a stimulus for its emotional salience and in motor areas that control movement. Is this sound important? Yes. Should I do something about it? Absolutely.

This spur to caretaking action — this antsy, subliminal desire to solve the dilemma presented by the wailing infant — could explain why a crying infant on an airplane is especially distressing. Passengers want to help; they can’t, and they can’t even run away.

One solution: Break out the video games.

In another study, volunteers were asked to play a lab version of the popular game Whac-a-Mole by pressing down on an ever-shifting target button as rapidly as possible. Subjects then listened to recordings of babies crying, adults crying or birds singing, and played the game again.

“We saw better scores and more effortful pressing after the infant cries,” Dr. Young said.

Candy Crush and a crybaby: sounds like the perfect pair.

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Side Effects: Sifrhippus, the First Horse, Got Even Tinier as the Planet Heated Up

Scientists have known that many mammals appear to have shrunk during the warming period, and the phenomenon fits well with what is known as Bergmann’s rule, which says, roughly, that mammals of a given genus or species are smaller in hotter climates.

Although the rule refers to differences in location, it seemed also to apply to changes over time. But fine enough detail was lacking until now.

In Science, Ross Secord, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Jonathan Bloch, of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville; and a team of other researchers report on the collection and analysis of Sifrhippus fossils from the Bighorn Basin.

They report that the little horse got 30 percent smaller over the first 130,000 years, and then — as always seems to happen with weight loss — shot back up and got 75 percent bigger over the next 45,000 years.

The fossils indicate that at its smallest Sifrhippus weighed about eight and a half pounds, and at its largest about 15 pounds.

Using fine-grained detail on both climate and body size, the researchers concluded that the change in size was, as suspected, driven primarily by the warming trend.

“It seems to be natural selection,” said Dr. Secord. He said animals evolved to be smaller during warming because smaller animals did better in that environment, perhaps because the smaller an animal is, the easier it is to shed excess heat.

Paul L. Koch, head of the department of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a specialist in reconstructing ecosystems and climates from many millions of years ago, said, “The paper lets us see the effect of warming on mammals where the climate change is really large.”

Dr. Koch, who was not involved in the study, said he thought that the question of whether natural selection was the cause of the changes was still open, and that the disruption of ecosystems during the warming period might have led smaller animals to migrate to new locations.

The current warming period is occurring on a scale of hundreds of years, not thousands, and scientists can only speculate on whether modern mammals will shrink.

“It’s difficult to say that mammals are going to respond in the same way now,“ Dr. Secord said. “If I had to guess,” he said, he thinks some will get smaller. And, he said, some studies have shown some birds to be getting smaller in response to warming.

If warming continues at the highest rate projected, he said, there’s another question: “Can mammals keep up?” 

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