Endangered Tasmanian devils insured against future threats

Endangered Tasmanian devils insured against future threats

The largest ever analysis of Tasmanian devil genetics has found protected populations are as robust as wild ones, raising hopes for the endangered species’ survival.

Last year a number of threatened species recovery plans were removed by the former government; now new research shows “insurance populations”—isolated from threats to prevent extinctions—could help preserve many animals.

Specifically, one of the largest wildlife genetic studies in the world has found that insurance populations of the endangered Tasmanian devil, in zoos and on Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania, are as genetically diverse as wild populations. This means insurance animals are as healthy and likely to reproduce and can be reintroduced into the wild, bolstering the species’ numbers.

The research, published iScience, is led by the University of Sydney’s Wildlife Genomics Group, in collaboration with the Tasmanian government’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.

At their height, Tasmanian devils—which are only found in their namesake state—were found at densities of 1.3 devils per km2. Populations across most of the state have declined by an estimated 80% since 1996 due to a contagious cancer, devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). The disease is not the only issue facing devils: they are also threatened by roadkill, habitat destruction, and climate changes. Although there have been no local extinctions as a result of DFTD, populations remain sparse.

The fact that the insurance population animals are as genetically robust as the wild ones shows specific breeding strategies are effective, study co-author Dr. Carolyn Hogg says.

“The consistency is likely thanks to our ongoing strategic management of the insurance population, which includes over 37 zoos, as well as devils on Maria Island.

“By integrating orphan joeys that have been exposed to DFTD in the wild, we have ensured we have captured any genetic changes as a result of the disease.”

James Biggs, Director of Conservation and Population Management, Zoo and Aquarium Association, who manages the protected Tasmanian devil population, said: “This program demonstrates the role and value of zoos in buying time for a species until the primary threats are addressed, and wild populations can be restored.”

Dr. Hogg added that the breeding strategy can be applied to other endangered species and is therefore a useful tool to address the global biodiversity crisis. “We have already applied it to species which are part of different safe haven (fenced site) populations on the Australian mainland, such as bilbies and woylies—an extremely rare, small marsupial,” she said.

Around 1 million species already face extinction worldwide, many within decades, according to the recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) assessment report. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, Australia leads the world in mammal extinctions.

Lead Image: Credit: Kunal Kalra on Unsplash.

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