Two teensy-tiny ears were visible from a wallaby’s pouch Thursday afternoon as mother and baby napped in the afternoon sun at Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero.
The baby, so young that zookeepers haven’t yet discovered its gender, eventually stretched out a skinny paw and patted its mother’s fur as it popped out slightly.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, who took the covers off?’ ” education coordinator Missy Lamar joked as onlookers swooned over the adorable sight.
Known as a joey, the marsupial marks the first birth the zoo has seen this year. Though its estimated birthday is Sept. 12, it first stuck its head out in February.
Months went by without the staff knowing because the baby remained in the pouch while nursing.
Babies continue to bring delight to the zoo staff. Last year, a porcupine and four-horn sheep were born. A Serrated hinge-back tortoise, an endangered species in Africa, was born in 2009.
That birth is touted as the species’ first recorded birth in captivity, animal collections manager Kate Capela said.
“Half the keeping staff came running when we found that tortoise egg,” she added.
Staff hope to see baby lemurs this spring.
Wallaby births are a tale seemingly out of science fiction.
First, the mothers have three uteruses and can produce two types of milk to sustain babies as they progress through different cycles. “One can be waiting, one delivered and one in the pouch at any given time,” Capela said.
Second, a joey is the size of a lima bean when born. The hairless baby, unable to see, then uses its legs to crawl along the outside of its mother’s body to find her pouch and begin nursing.
When the joey grows big enough, its movements also help staff know it’s there.
Wallabies hadn’t been bred at Charles Paddock in about seven years, Capela said. But about a year and a half ago, an advisory group with the facility’s licensing association gave approval to bring in Jasper, an unaltered male.
The zoo has three males and three females. The females represent three generations — grandmother, mother and daughter. The youngest daughter, Opal, is the mother of the new joey.
Now about the size of a Chihuahua, the joey is expected to remain in the pouch for several more months.