Brand Tasmania Newsletter, August, 2011, Issue 119
A United States-led research team says it has found a way to improve the odds of saving the Tasmanian devil from the fatal Devil Facial Tumour Disease through applying genetic selection in captive breeding programs.
Professor Stephan Schuster of Penn State University said a vital breakthrough had been provided by revolutionary gene-sequencing machines able to read entire devil genomes quickly and cheaply.
Professor Schuster’s team has created a model which enables local devil-rescue programs to test, select and breed animals with the broadest possible genetic diversity. This is critical for the long-term future of the species.
Tasmanian scientists Greg Woods of the Menzies Research Institute, Alex Kreiss and Menna Jones from the University of Tasmania’s School of Zoology and Stephen Pyecroft from the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Wildlife and Environment contributed to the multi-national project.
“We can use the detailed information in the genome to design captive insurance populations that better represent wild populations,” Dr Jones told The Mercury. “We are also better placed to monitor changes in wild populations.”
More than 300 devils are already being held in protective custody in zoos, wildlife parks and so-called “devil islands” where areas of land are fenced to prevent any contact with wild devils that may carry the disease.
The Devil’s Ark at Barrington Tops, NSW, has a growing population of devils that would benefit, like those at other interstate and Tasmanian locations, from the new technology.
The Ark enjoyed a bountiful initial breeding season in 2011, with 17 imps born to devils that had been released into large-scale bush enclosures in a natural environment similar to areas of devil habitat in Tasmania.
The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program has also been boosted by the discovery of surviving devils in north-eastern Tasmania, where the disease was first detected in 1996.
The fact that devils are continuing to live at “ground zero” suggests that earlier forecasts of extinction through the disease may require re-examination.
Sam Thalmann, a wildlife biologist with the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, said 30 remote cameras had been placed in a grid across 300,000ha of land (basically the north-eastern tip of the State) during a 20-day survey in February.
“Our cameras detected devil presence at 19 locations,” Dr Thalmann said. “That means that devils were observed at 67 per cent of the sites that we surveyed. Some cameras detected a single devil, while others captured numerous individuals. This is pretty exciting because it means there’s no evidence of extinction in those north-eastern areas. Numbers are down, but the key point is that devil populations are persisting.”
The devil population at Mt William National Park has been studied for many years, mostly through trap-and-release methods, but the remote-camera survey was able to shed light on a wider area.
Devils were lured into camera view using scents, fresh bait and artificial latrines.
Unique blazing and scarring patterns on the photographed animals were used to help identify individuals, allowing researchers to estimate a minimum total of 34 devils across the region. The photographed devils predominantly looked like one-year-olds or two-year-olds. DFTD was evident on some of the devils.
In another development, a feasibility study has been completed into building a 12km-plus devil-proof fence to isolate a healthy wild population at the historic Woolnorth property in north-western Tasmania.
Cancerous cells that cause the deadly tumours are usually passed from animal to animal during fighting and the proposed fence would eliminate any possibility of direct physical contact between the local population and any infected devils that might arrive in the area.
Steve Harris, a Senior Policy Analyst with the Save the Tasmanian Devil program, said: “We’re confident that we could build a quarantine-standard fence that could do the job we want. But there’s still a bit more work to do to ensure that we don’t impact the heritage of the landscape, or operations of the farm. You don’t create problems to fix problems.”
Samantha Fox, a wildlife biologist with the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has walked the route of the proposed fence.
“The construction of more than 12km of fencing is a big project and an expensive option,” Dr Fox said. “But when you think about that money in terms of the cost per devil, then it’s great value.
“A fence means the devils remain completely wild. They look for food, raise their young and have lots of room to roam – all the things devils normally do. So, with careful planning and consultation, the fence can be a win/win situation for everybody involved.”
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