Improving the diets of captive carnivores

17 July 2014

An exciting collaboration between the University of Sydney and the Taronga Conservation Society will study the eating behaviour of captive dunnarts, quolls and devils.

The Australia Research Council has recently awarded Linkage funding to a project involving the University's School of Biological Sciences, Charles Perkins Centre, Faculty of Veterinary Science and Discipline of Physiology. This team of University collaborators, along with their zoo partners, will investigate the diet regulation behaviour of marsupial carnivores.

One of the lead researchers, Dr Shawn Wilder, said "We hope to use the results of this study to improve diets fed to these animals in captivity, including captive breeding programs."

The team will be manipulating the amounts of lipid, carbohydrates and protein in the diets of fat-tailed dunnarts, Northern quolls and Tasmanian devils. "We want to test how these marsupial carnivores balance their intake of nutrients and their target intake of nutrients."

Tasmanian devil foraging in preliminary trials (photo by Alice Le Gal).
Tasmanian devil foraging in preliminary trials (photo by Alice Le Gal).

"We're really excited to be embarking on this collaboration between The University of Sydney and the Taronga Conservation Society," said Shawn. "Taronga has extensive experience managing conservation projects worldwide and will be instrumental to determining the best way to apply the results to improve animal welfare."

Captive breeding programs are an important part of conservation and reintroduction efforts for endangered species, but animals in captivity are prone to excess weight gain. Porky devils may be the consequence of imbalanced diets. "For example, if carnivores need to prioritise protein intake for reproduction, but are fed foods with a lower than optimum protein:fat ratio, they may over-consume fat to reach their protein targets," explained Shawn.

"This is an exciting time for both Taronga and the University of Sydney as both are expanding their expertise in nutrition." The ARC funding for this project is worth more than $280K and will expire in 2017.