Staff at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham had some babies to tend to this weekend.
On Friday, the museum's six-year-old red wolf gave birth to three male and three female pups. It's the first time red wolf pups have been born at the museum since 2002. Once common across the southeast, red wolves now are critically endangered.
The pups and their mom are doing well and are on exhibit in the museum's Explore the Wild exhibit. While all wolves will remain on exhibit, the pups and mother will likely spend a majority of their time in either the provided den or one of the dens dug by the female during the gestation period, according to a press release.
"Both parents and pups are doing well," said Sherry Samuels, Museum of Life and Science's Animal Department Director, whose staff performed the initial physical checkups. "There was no presence of congenital defects and all appear to be healthy, however the first 30 days are a particularly sensitive time and we will continue regular monitoring."
This is the third time in 24 years that successful breeding of red wolves has occurred at the museum, according to the press release. The museum received its first red wolf in November 1992, followed by a litter of pups in May 1993 and April 2002.
Once a top predator throughout the southeastern United States and one of only two apex predators native to North Carolina, the red wolf is critically endangered with captive and wild populations totaling less than 300 individuals, according to the museum.
The museum's red wolves are a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Program and the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, a collaborative breeding and management program developed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to ensure the sustainability of endangered animal populations. Samuels is part of the plan's management team.
Mom, known as female #1858, was moved to the Durham museum in November from the Riding Reflection Arboretum and Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., and is considered the second most genetically valuable female red wolf alive today.
Dad, known as male #1784, was transferred to the museum in 2014 from the N.C. State University Veterinary College where he had sired another litter of pups.
The Species Survival Plan team consider the two a "potential high value breeding pair to maintain genetic diversity within the red wolf population," according to the museum.
"This is truly exciting news for the species and the Museum," Samuels said. "... Each pup is valuable for the survival of the species and represents hope for the red wolf population overall."
Visitors to the museum this month may get a chance to see the pups, but it might not be for very long stretches of time. The pups will start opening their eyes 10 days to 14 days after birth and are expected to begin venturing outside the den around three weeks of age.
At about six weeks of age - by around mid-June - the public should get to see them more often. Still, the museum staff notes, red wolves can be very shy and reserved around crowds and loud noises. Museum staff will be on hand at the red wolf exhibit all summer to answer questions and also remind visitors to stay calm and quiet.
"It will be an exciting and busy summer keeping up with this family," Samuels said. "This is a wonderful opportunity for our visitors to practice the skills used by wildlife biologists observing red wolves in the wild. Quiet observation and patience will be key when viewing our new pups."
The pups will remain at the museum for the next year and, possibly even longer, depending on the recommendations of the Species Survival Plan.