Tasmania’s Stories

Vaccinated devils find wild love

Edition 186_Professor Greg Woods ... keen to pursue a one-shot vaccine

Vaccinated Tasmanian devils released into wilderness areas are breeding with wild devils, raising hopes of a population resurgence in targeted areas.

Biologist David Pemberton said the first of a number of births had been recorded during monitoring at Stony Head in the north in June.

“This is a major milestone for the Wild Devil Recovery Project,” Dr Pemberton said.

“As part of our monitoring, biologists trapped a four-year devil with three pouch young.

"The tracking data is suggesting that the introductions provide an influx of genetic diversity into an area up to 20km from the release site."

As the scientist who led the development of a vaccine against the devastating Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) announced his retirement, the vaccine was found to be less than 100 per cent effective.

Professor Greg Woods of the Menzies Institute for Health Research said that three of 33 released devils at Stony Head had developed small facial tumours.

“Clearly the vaccination isn’t 100 per cent effective,” he said “We will analyse the samples, try to modify the vaccination and try again.

“Our next challenge is to determine why three devils were not protected and to modify the immunisation procedure to provide full protection.

“The devils are breeding in the wild, so the numbers are going up. This minor hurdle is something we can overcome with more research.”

Meanwhile, the majority of vaccinated devils released into the wild are coping well and putting on weight, as well as producing young.

Dr Sam Fox, of the Save the Devils Program, said none of the devils freed at Mount William National Park in May had been killed by vehicles.

“This is encouraging news as data from previous releases found captive devils to be particularly vulnerable in the first two to four weeks as they disperse away from the release site and transition back to wild living,” she said.

On the Forestier Peninsula, in south-eastern Tasmania, recent monitoring has also found two of three females released in 2015 carrying a second generation of joeys, while five females born in the wild also had juveniles.

Dr Pemberton said there were at least 43 joeys in the pouches of 12 mothers at Stony Head, including two of the females from last year’s release.

“A population like that [at Stony Head] usually hovers around 20,” Dr Pemberton said.

“With [43] babies in the pouches, if they can wean them that’s basically going to double the population."

He said there had been positive breeding results from Maria Island, as well as Forestier Peninsula and Stony Head.

“All these sites have bred and [some] are second and third generation.

“The goal of the ... project is to get genetic diversity into the population and the numbers up to give evolution a chance.”

When Professor Woods, then an expert in human immunology, started researching the disease in 2005, the wild population was in rapid decline.

Sightings in the north-east, where the disease was first detected, were estimated to have declined by 95 per cent.

Little was known about the species — especially its all-important immune system.

With extinction a real possibility, the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program began to establish an “insurance population” of healthy devils that had not been affected by disease.

“We basically knew nothing about the devil’s immune system," Professor Woods told The Mercury.

"In fact, it was amazing how little we knew about the marsupials."

Menzies' devil team began with the professor and one PhD student and has grown to about a dozen members who work with scientists researching devil genetics across Australia and the world.

The team’s painstaking laboratory work revealed in 2015 that the devil’s own immune system was capable of mounting a response to DFTD.

More recent work has demonstrated that immunotherapy can cure devils of the transmissible cancer.

A research paper published in Scientific Reports in July confirmed that the tumours and the devils' immune responses were both evolving quite rapidly.

Lead author, Rodrigo Hamede of UTAS, said: “Several studies have recently suggested that devils are adapting to DFTD. However, two different genetic lineages of tumours have different growth rates and, therefore, [different] impact on devils."

Dr Hamede said some devils' immune systems might be capable of altering the growth rate of tumours.

Professor Woods, 62, said the path to an all-important one-shot vaccine still had many “twists and turns”.

He said he planned to stay on for the journey as a part-time researcher and mentor of postgraduate students.

 Image courtesy of UTAS

Footnote: Devil Ark's Tasmanian devil breeding program at Barrington Tops, NSW, added 51 new joeys to its population in the recent breeding season. Since starting with 44 devils in 2011, Devil Ark has seen around 250 joeys born over five years. The total captive devil population in 26 institutions is now well past the initial target of 500.

1 August 2017, Edition 186

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Facts about Tasmania


Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, located at latitude 40° south and longitude 144° east and separated from the continent by Bass Strait. It is a group of 334 islands, with the main island being 315 km (180 miles) from west to east and 286 km (175 miles) north to south.


Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people, committed to a continually expanding export sector. In 2012-13, international exports from the state totalled $3.04 billion. USA, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and other Asian countries account for the bulk of exports, with goods and services also exported to Europe and many other regions.


Tasmania is similar in size to the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. The Tasmanian islands have a combined coastline of more than 3,000 km.


The main island has a land area of 62,409 sq km (24,096 sq miles) and the minor islands, taken together, total only 6 per cent of the main island's land area. The biggest islands are Flinders (1,374 sq km/539 sq miles), King, Cape Barren, Bruny and Macquarie Islands.


About 250km (150 miles) separates Tasmania’s main island from continental Australia. The Kent Group of Islands, one of the most northerly parts of the state, is only 55km (34 miles) from the coast of the Australian continent.


Twice named 'Best Temperate Island in the World' by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Tasmania has a mild, temperate maritime climate, with four distinct seasons.


In summer (December to February) the average maximum temperature is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit). In winter (June to August) the average maximum is 12° C (52° F) and the average minimum is 4° C (40° F). Snow often falls in the highlands, but is rarely experienced in more settled areas.

Annual Rainfall

Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part of the State lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

Annual Rainfall

Annual rainfall in the west is 2,400 mm (95 inches), but hardy locals insist there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. If you travel 120 km east to Hobart, you experience a much drier average of 626 mm (24 inches) a year.


The 512,875-strong community spreads itself across the land; less urbanised than the population of any other Australian state. Hobart, the capital city, is home to more than 212,000 people.

Capital City

Hobart nestles at the foot of Mt Wellington (1,270 m / 4,000 ft) and overlooks the Derwent Estuary, where pods of dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes seen from nearby beaches. Surrounded by thickly forested rolling hills, the city is home to the state parliament and the main campus of the University of Tasmania.

Capital City

Its historic centre features Georgian and Regency buildings from colonial times. Hobart is home port for coastal fishing boats, Antarctic expeditions and vessels that fish the Southern Ocean.

Land Formation

Mountain ranges in the south-west date back 1,000 million years. Ancient sediments were deeply buried, folded and heated under enormous pressure to form schists and glistening white quartzites.

Land Formation

In the south-west and central highlands, dolerite caps many mountains, including Precipitous Bluff and Tasmania's highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 m / 5300 ft). More than 42 per cent of Tasmania is World Heritage Area, national park and marine or forest reserves.


Vegetation is diverse, from alpine heathlands and tall open eucalypt forests to areas of temperate rainforests and moorlands, known as buttongrass plains. Many plants are unique to Tasmania and the ancestors of some species grew on the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, before it broke up 50 million years ago.


Unique native conifers include slow-growing Huon pines, with one specimen on Mt Read estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King's holly, is a self-cloning shrub that may well be the oldest living organism on earth. It was discovered in 1937.


Tasmania is the last refuge of several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent. It is the only place to see a Tasmanian devil or eastern quoll (native cat) in the wild and is the best place to see the spotted-tailed quoll (tiger cat), all carnivorous marsupials.


The eastern bettong and the Tasmanian pademelon, both now extinct on the Australian continent, may also be observed.


The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was Australia's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and is a modern day mystery. The last documented thylacine died in captivity in 1936 and although the animal is considered extinct, unsubstantiated sightings persist.

History and Heritage

Aboriginal people have lived in Tasmania for about 35,000 years, since well before the last Ice Age. They were isolated from the Australian continent about 12,000 years ago, when the seas rose to flood low coastal plains and form Bass Strait.

History and Heritage

Descendants of the original people are part of modern Tasmania's predominantly Anglo-Celtic population.

History and Heritage

Tasmania was originally named Van Dieman’s Land by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman in 1642. The island was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1803 and the original name was associated with the convict era. It was changed to Tasmania when convict transportation stopped in 1853.


A resourceful island culture has generated leading-edge niche industries, from production of high-speed catamaran ferries and marine equipment to lightning-protection technology.


Tasmanians produce winches and windlasses for some of the world's biggest ocean-going pleasure craft; large-scale inflatable evacuation systems and provide specialist outfit-accommodation services to the marine industry.


The Wooden Boat Centre at Shipwrights Point has re-established the skills and traditions of another age and attracts students from around the world.


Tasmania is a world leader in natural turf systems for major sporting arenas and in areas of mining technology and environmental management. Its aquaculture industry has developed ground-breaking fish-feeding technology and new packaging.


Tasmanians sell communications equipment to many navies and their world-class fine timber designers and craftsmen take orders internationally for furniture made from distinctive local timber.


The state is a natural larder with clean air, unpolluted water and rich soils inviting the production of 100 varieties of specialty cheeses, as well as other dairy products, mouth-watering rock lobsters, oysters, scallops and abalone, Atlantic salmon, beef, premium beers, leatherwood honey, mineral waters, fine chocolates, fresh berry fruits, apples and crisp vegetables.


Tasmania is a producer of award-winning cool-climate wines, beers, ciders and whiskies. Other export products include essential oils such as lavender, pharmaceutical products and premium wool sought after in Europe and Asia. Hobart is a vital gateway to the Antarctic and a centre for Southern Ocean and polar research.


The industries in Tasmania which made the greatest contribution to the state's gross product in 2010-11 in volume terms were: Manufacturing (9.4%), Health care and social assistance (8.2%), Financial and insurance services (7.2%), Ownership of dwellings and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (each 7.1%).

Getting to Tasmania

Travel is easy, whether by air from Sydney or Melbourne, or by sea, with daily sailings of the twin ferries Spirit of Tasmania 1 and 2 each way between Melbourne and Devonport throughout the year.

This site has been produced by the Brand Tasmania Council © 2014

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