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Disease-​free Tas­man­ian dev­ils found in remote south-​west of Tasmania

pub­lished 30 April 2018 | mod­i­fied 30 April 2018

A mis­sion to trap Tas­man­ian dev­ils in the Tasmania’s remote south-​west coast has found healthy ani­mals with an absence of Devil Facial Tumour Dis­ease (DFTD).

Sci­en­tists from the Save the Tas­man­ian Devil Pro­gram (STDP), The Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney (USYD) and Toledo Zoo spent eight days explor­ing the south west wilder­ness on a quest to find and trap Tas­man­ian dev­ils (Sar­cophilus har­risii) in an area that nobody had trapped before.

Healthy Tasmanian devil trappedOne of the disease-​free Tas­man­ian dev­ils found.
Photo cred­its: Toledo Zoo & Aquarium.

STDP Team Leader, and Adjunct Biol­o­gist to Toledo Zoo, Dr Sam Fox said the trip was crit­i­cal to look at the health of dev­ils to see if dis­ease had reached this area.

The com­bined trap­ping mis­sion across Wreck Bay and Nye Bay saw 14 indi­vid­ual dev­ils trapped,” Dr Fox said. “All were in good con­di­tion and impor­tantly, there were no signs of disease.”

From our trap­ping we found that the ages of the dev­ils ranged from 18 months to five years which is a good sign to show dis­ease is not present as we just don’t trap dev­ils as old as these in areas of the State where DFTD is found.

Dr Sam Fox, STDP Team Leader and Adjunct Biol­o­gist to Toledo Zoo

Dr Fox led the Wreck Bay crew and said the results show that the pop­u­la­tion in this area of the south west coast is small and healthy.

The dev­ils we caught are likely to have a large home range. They are hav­ing to travel long dis­tances along the coast to find food and are mov­ing back­wards and for­wards as they for­age for pro­tein,” Sam says. “We know this because we trapped the same dev­ils two or three times in dif­fer­ent loca­tions between our trap sites that were kilo­me­tres apart.”

The dev­ils are restricted to the coastal fringes where food is prob­a­bly more abun­dant. There were iso­lated patches of suit­able habi­tat for dev­ils. The major­ity of the coastal ter­rain is but­ton­grass plain which is not ideal for dev­ils to find food. Nat­ural mar­su­pial lawns are fre­quented because they attract brows­ing mam­mals and are also often used as latrines,” Dr Pem­ber­ton said.

The pre­ferred areas had food sources for the dev­ils such as pademel­ons and they also pro­vided the right habi­tat for den­ning. The dev­ils spend their time mov­ing between these small pock­ets of appro­pri­ate habi­tat. They also scav­enge along the coast­line, look­ing for other pro­tein such as washed-​up fish, or even some­thing big­ger like a whale or seal.”

Scats were also col­lected as part of the trap­ping mis­sion and they will be used to look at the dev­ils micro­biome. Tis­sue was also col­lected from ear biop­sies. The sam­ples are cur­rently being analysed by the Uni­ver­sity of Syd­ney and this will shed more light on how genet­i­cally dif­fer­ent these dev­ils are to the rest of the pop­u­la­tion across Tasmania.

The data we col­lected on this trip can give us a rough pop­u­la­tion esti­mate, based on the cap­ture mark cap­ture process, look­ing at the num­ber of dev­ils cap­tured and how many ani­mals were new or recap­tured,” Dr Fox said.

Toledo Zoo Pres­i­dent and CEO Jeff Sailer says the Zoo is hon­oured to be a part of the STDP, as both an in situ research part­ner and a facil­ity with dev­ils on dis­play — one of only six zoos in the USA that have Tas­man­ian devils.

The Zoo’s mis­sion is to inspire oth­ers to join us in car­ing for ani­mals and con­serv­ing the nat­ural world. We can’t think of a bet­ter way to exem­plify that mis­sion than to pro­vide all the resources pos­si­ble to help save an iconic species from the brink of extinc­tion,” Dr Sailer said.

We under­stand the vital role dev­ils play in the Tas­man­ian ecosys­tem and pop­u­lar cul­ture and are com­mit­ted to help­ing the devil pop­u­la­tion thrive for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

The south west trip comes under the exist­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion between STDP and USYD in regards to long-​term genetic man­age­ment of Tas­man­ian devils.

Dr Car­olyn Hogg, Research Man­ager of the Aus­tralasian Wildlife Genomics Group said USYD sourced crowd­fund­ing to help make the trip a real­ity and was sup­ported by 106 donors to the crowd­fund­ing campaign.

It has been won­der­ful to bring together gov­ern­ment, aca­d­e­mic and indus­try part­ners to ensure we have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what is hap­pen­ing with Tas­man­ian dev­ils in south west Tas­ma­nia in regards to the dis­ease and their genetic value,” Dr Hogg said.

This trip would not have been pos­si­ble with­out com­mu­nity sup­port through the crowd­fund­ing cam­paign, the STDP and the inter­na­tional part­ner zoos.

Dr Car­olyn Hogg, Research Man­ager of the Aus­tralasian Wildlife Genomics Group

Dr Hogg said funds were used to sup­port the genetic analy­sis of the 201516 scat sam­ples col­lected by vol­un­teers from Wild­care SPRATS and Tas­ma­nia National Parks & Wildlife.

(Source: Tas­man­ian Gov­ern­ment news release, 30.04.2018)

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