As part of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program’s (STDP) conservation efforts, an insurance population of Tasmanian devils was established to help secure the species against the threat of extinction in the wild due to Devil Facial Tumour Disease. In order for this insurance population to mitigate against complete extinction of the species, it was vital that the devils being used to ‘build’ the insurance population represented the genetic diversity of the species.
Sam Fox, Phil Wise, Stewart Huxtable, Mary-Beth McConnell and Corey Wyckoff (Toledo zoo)
Accordingly, the STDP’s Recovery Plan stipulated that “The insurance population aims to retain at least 95 per cent of the genetic diversity of the wild source population”.
The campsite at Nye Bay. Bill Brown and Olivia Barnard in the 'kitchen' area
An analysis of the ‘founder’ devils that were originally brought in from the wild to create this insurance population showed that a very large proportion of the devils came from the north west of Tasmania and therefore only represented a proportion of the genetic diversity of Tasmanian devils in the wild across the state.
Helicopter dropping off equipment for the Founder Project at Wreck Bay in south-west Tasmania
As a consequence the Founder Project was established in 2016 with the aim of analysing tissue samples collected from devils all around Tasmania to determine if and where the unrepresented genetic diversity in the wild lies.
The first step in this project involves gathering all the information the devil program and its collaborators already have on the genetic diversity of the different wild devil populations around Tasmania.
STDP Samantha Fox carrying an empty devil trap wiith Mary-Beth McConnell
Once that has been completed the STDP will then be able to accurately identify the physical gaps and target collection of genetic samples from devils within these the areas in Tasmania.
Trapping trips to these locations will then be conducted so samples can be collected in order for the STDP to analyse the genetics of the devils from these identified areas.
Dr Samantha Fox and Mary-Beth McConnell (Toledo Zoo Devil Keeper)
The last step in this project is to compare genetic diversity from all areas of Tasmania and
determine which wild devil populations possess devils with ‘novel’ genes not currently seen in the Insurance Population.
Once these areas are identified, the STDP will then trap young dispersing devils to bring them and their genetics into the captive population. After being cleared through the mandatory quarantine processes the devils will then be able to mate with current insurance population devils and provide their unique genes to help guarantee the future of the species.