Cross-fostering as a conservation tool to augment endangered carnivore populations

Eric M Gese, William T Waddell, Patricia A Terletzky, Chris F Lucash, Scott R McLellan, Susan K Behrns

Cross-fostering offspring with nonbiological parents could prove useful to augment populations of endangered carnivores. We used cross-fostering to augment captive-born and wild-born litters for the endangered red wolf (Canis rufus). Between 1987 and 2016, 23 cross-fostering events occurred involving captive-born pups fostered into captive litters (n = 8 events) and captive-born pups fostered into wild recipient litters (n = 15 events). Percentage of pups surviving 3 and 12 months was 91.7% for captive-born pups fostered into captive recipient litters. For pups fostered into wild litters, percentage of pups surviving 5 months was > 94% among fostered pups (pups fostered into a wild red wolf litter or replaced a hybrid litter), pups in recipient litters (wild-born litters receiving fostered pups), and pups in control litters (wild-born litters not in a fostering event) when using pups with known fates. Including pups with unknown fates as deaths, percentage of pups surviving 5 months was > 54% among fostered pups, pups in recipient litters, and pups in control litters. Among wild litters, percentage of pups surviving 12 months was > 82% among fostered pups, pups in recipient litters, and pups in control litters when using pups with known fates. Including pups with unknown fates as deaths, percentage of pups surviving 12 months was > 48% among fostered pups, pups in recipient litters, and pups in control litters. Although survival to 12 months was similar among the groups, average life span was different with pups in control litters living 3.3 years, pups in recipient litters living 4.6 years, and fostered pups living 5.6 years. Of fostered pups surviving > 12 months in the wild, 9 animals whelped or sired 26 litters. Cross-fostering was successful at augmenting litter size for red wolves without any deleterious effects on recipient litters, illustrating fostering as a tool for increasing populations of endangered carnivores.

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https://doi.org/10.1093/jmammal/gyy087

Eric M Gese, William T Waddell, Patricia A Terletzky, Chris F Lucash, Scott R McLellan, Susan K Behrns. 2018. Cross-fostering as a conservation tool to augment endangered carnivore populations. Journal of Mammalogy 99(5):1033-1041.