Nothing beats a meal of termites

Urban sprawl and chemical contamination is making it difficult for the Perth Zoo to find and collect termites for its numbat breeding program.

Numbat joey at Perth Zoo. Photo: Alex Asbury/ Perth Zoo.

Perth Zoo director of animal health and research Peter Mawson said the biggest issue for the zoo was finding enough termites to keep the colony operating.

“We currently operate at a number of locations … up in the Perth Hills, but also on the Swan Coastal Plain,” he said.

“We have been locating some more sites that we can operate on in the Swan Coastal Plain and ones that are close enough to Perth so it doesn’t become horrendously expensive to visit them.”

Dr Mawson said part of the $10,000 grant recently given to the Perth Zoo from the Federal Government would go towards buying equipment for termite traps.

Due to the limited number of termites, the zoo has developed an artificial diet for the numbats which includes milk powder, raw egg and vitamins.

Numbats can eat up to 20,000 termites a day, making it difficult to collect the appropriate quantity for an entire diet.

Dr Mawson said the artificial diet that had been developed over 20 years to supplement the termites had been very successful when there were supply shortages or lots of animals to feed.

“We know we can actually raise numbat babies from birth to weaning entirely on our artificial diet so no termites involved, but obviously if you’re looking to release animals into the wild you would expect them to know what a termite looks like, smells like and how to find it,” he said.

Curtin University’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences senior lecturer Dr Christine Cooper said whilst it was impossible to keep captive numbats on a solely termite diet, the artificial diet was not ideal for breeding.

“Trying to completely simulate all of the tiny little micronutrients and things in the diet is really difficult,” she said.

“It seems to work just fine as a maintenance diet, but for breeding they do need that extra level of termites, so there is clearly something in [termites] that they need to kick them into reproduction.”

Perth Zoo is the only zoo globally breeding WA’s state fauna emblem, contributing to what the Australian Wildlife Conservancy stated was an estimated population of under 1,000 numbats.

Dr Mawson said since the establishment of the numbat breeding program in 1987, 244 numbats had been released into the wild.

“While that doesn’t sound like much, compared to a lot of other species, it is a pretty good outcome given they only have four young at a time and not all of them survive past weaning age,” he said.

Project Numbat president Tamara Wilkes-Jones said it was important to conserve numbats as so many Australian mammals had been lost already.

“They’re just such an interesting and beautiful looking mammal,” she said.

Dr Cooper said the preservation of numbats was essential as they not only affected aspects of biodiversity but also tourism.

“Tourists want to see native animals and that can be a big drawcard to bringing people to Western Australia,” she said.


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