A mission to trap Tasmanian devils in the state’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 devils in an area that nobody had trapped before.
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.”
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.
STDP Dr Sam Fox carrying an empty devil trap wiith Mary-Beth McConnell
“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 Fox explained.
“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.”
STDP Manager Dr David Pemberton said feral cats were abundant at Nye Bay and there was more sign of cats than devils.
“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 exhibit facility.
“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 pop 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 Hogg said funds were used to support the genetic analysis of the 2015/16 scat samples collected by volunteers from Wildcare SPRATS and Tasmania National Parks & Wildlife.