Boosting the devil gene pool at Woolnorth

Researchers have enhanced the genetic diversity of the Tasmanian devil population in the Woolnorth area, the State’s last high-density bastion of devils free of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease.

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP) has been monitoring the population of Woolnorth devils since 2004 and over the years observed an interesting phenomenon.

While the disease-free area boasts a high population density of devils, the genetic diversity and female participation in breeding has declined over recent years and is relatively low when compared to other sites.

Sauterne was among the wild females still carrying pouch young after being released at Woolnorth

Research by the University of Sydney’s Wildlife Genomics Team was unable to determine if the reproductive decline was driving the inbreeding or vice-versa but there was concern that data showed inbreeding was likely to exacerbate, placing the Woolnorth devil population “at the cusp of the extinction vortex”.

In response to the situation, the team suggested the STDP introduce genetic material from other locations across Tasmania to hopefully improve the situation.

Using a new breeding approach, 10 female wild devils from Woolnorth were successfully bred with six captive-bred males with genetics significantly different to those found at Woolnorth in a free-range enclosure at Bridport.

The wild females bred successfully with the males, a first for the devil breeding program. They had a total of 21 pouch young and, with the males, were then released back to Woolnorth four months later. The results were encouraging.

Seven of the 10 females released back into the area were trapped as part of an annual monitoring survey last month, and all were found to be in good condition. Of the six females that bred in the free, five were still carrying pouch young after release to the wild.

The STDP is excited about the promising results of the new breeding approach which could help inform future management decisions and actions.

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