Nebraska zoos integral to global conservation efforts

May 22, 2015, 6:45 a.m. ·

A Matschie's tree kangaroo moves around its enclosure at the Lincoln Children's Zoo. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)

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It’s believed there are more than eight and a half million species of life on earth. On average, around 200 of those go extinct every 24 hours. Scientists from two Nebraska zoos say that loss of life is unacceptable.

While on a field trip from school, about a dozen first grade students gathered around the Matschie’s tree kangaroo exhibit at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo. It was feeding time for Milla and her joey, Collins. The children laughed loudly and screamed with excitement. It didn’t sound like an ideal place to raise a baby, but on the other side of the glass, it was as peaceful as any nursery. A mother and child stretched after their nap, and began eating lunch.

At the same time, head zookeeper Davi Ann Norsworthy checked each of the marsupial’s pouches, in what I’m told was a rare show of trust for tree kangaroos. (To see video of the Matschie's tree kangaroo, click here)

Milla, the tree kangaroo at Lincoln Children's Zoo, was the first of her species to allow her human caretaker, Davi Ann Norsworthy, to film joey development from inside the pouch. To see the video, click here.

“You just cannot help to not fall in love with them. They are just amazing. It’s hard sometimes to see that just looking at them, but once you work with them and especially with Milla and everything that she’s been able to do, I just fell in love,” Norsworthy said.

Milla the momma

There are about 50 Matschie’s tree kangaroos—or tree roos--in the U.S. Milla is mother to seven of them. Indigenous to Papua New Guinea, the 13-year-old tree roo came to the Children’s Zoo when she was just 18 months old.

Her successful breeding has helped turn the seven-and-a-half acre zoo into one of the premiere research sites for tree roos in the world. Milla was the first of her species documented to have twins, which Norsworthy monitored from inside the pouch.

“I’ve been able to document birth all the way until when [the joey] was popping its head out of the pouch, in the pouch, which has never been done before. She’s been very willing to let me do that, which is very unique to her species,” Norsworthy said.

However, not every species that needs saving is as cute and cuddly as a tree kangaroo.

Saving the world's most endangered animals

Jessi Krebs, the curator of amphibians and reptiles at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium described an animal the holds such a distinction. (To see video of some of the conservation efforts at the Henry Doorly Zoo, click here)

“This is the Mississippi gopher frog. Probably the most critically endangered true frog in the United States. At any given time, there’s anywhere between 75 and 100 adults left in the wild. Behind me we’ve got about 275, which makes it the largest gathering of Mississippi gopher frogs anywhere in the world,” Krebs said, while giving me a tour of something few zoo goers ever see, a 4,200-square-foot amphibian and reptile isolation area.

Each of the individual enclosures is sealed off from the rest with a precision that rivals a hospital burn unit.

Animals are isolated by species in environments mimicking their own natural habitat. Krebs said there’s no manual on how to care for these animals, so the zoo developed its own techniques. Everything from the water in the tanks to the bugs they eat is under strict control and observation.

ABOVE: Workers in Madagascar plant new trees to replace the ones cut down through deforestation. The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium has done extensive field work in the region to help save endangered plant and animal species. Edward Louis, the director of conservation genetics at the zoo, said he and his staff have taken more of a holistic approach to conservation in Madagascar. He said it's hard to convince someone making less than $2 a day that a specific animal is important, when that person is just trying to feed their family. (Photo courtesy of Hilary Hamilton)

BELOW: A greater bamboo lemur is one of the many species of animals endanger of extinction in Madagascar. Since 2009, the Henry Doorly Zoo has helped grow the population of this species from 30 individuals, to more than 100. (Photo courtesy of Edward Louis)

Take for instance the Kihansi spray toad, a species that is extinct in the wild and when full grown is about the size of a quarter.

“We know through trial and error that these animals can only eat newly-hatched crickets that are no more than two days old,” Krebs said, “If the cricket is three days old it’s too big.”

Different paths

Krebs said of the nine critically-endangered species being cared for in the isolation area, only four are part of a program to re-introduce them back into the wild. The rest, like the Kihansi spray toad, are part of what is called a population assurance colony.

“Which means their numbers in the wild are decreasing, but we’re not sure how to mitigate those losses. We don’t know how to stop the pollution, how to stop the habitat destruction, and the emerging diseases that are in those areas we can’t get a handle on. So before those animals completely go extinct, we grab a bunch of them up, we bring them into zoo care and university care, and we’re going to maintain them for multiple generations until we can reverse those problems they were facing,” Krebs said.

The basis for all life

Population assurance colonies are also helpful when it comes to endangered plant species as well.

Margaret From is the director of plant conservation at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, and knows full well the importance of plant life.

“It’s essential. It’s the basis for all life on earth. Without the plants, we can’t exist. The animals can’t exist. The insects wouldn’t exist. The birds wouldn’t, the microbes…everything depends on the plants,” From said.

In 2003, From said a particular variety of fern, the Governor Laffan’s Fern, was all but extinct. There were just five plants left at the Bermuda Botanical Gardens when a hurricane hit the facility.

“It knocked the greenhouse down. It splashed salt water on [the ferns], and so for the next few years, all five of those last five specimens for that species slowly died,” From said.

But as fate would have it, just days before the hurricane hit, From received samples from those ferns that she was able to cultivate into full plants, thus saving the species from extinction.

“They have now reintroduced [the ferns] back into the wild in Bermuda, a small number of them in 2014. For the first time in 110 years, they are back now in natural, protected areas in Bermuda,” From said.

Conservation through inspiration

The Governor Laffan’s Fern is just one of almost 180 species of plants From tends at the Conservation Research Center. All told, Nebraska zoos are helping to save more than 100 animal species from extinction as well.

From and other researchers agreed the conservation work being done in Nebraska is vital to the survival of numerous species all over the globe

And it’s that conservation work which helps bring students to zoos to see animals like the Matschie’s tree kangaroo. Without the work of Nebraska zoos, those students may have otherwise only been able to see a tree roo in a history book.


For more information about the conservation efforts of Nebraska zoos, please watch the videos below.