Australian scientists have joined forces in an attempt to save the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) - a carnivorous marsupial - from extinction.
Previous research has found that the Tasmanian Devil is likely to be extinct within 10 to 20 years due to an infectious facial cancer.
Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) is a parasitic cancer that appears to be affecting the majority of Tasmanian Devils, was first discovered in 1995. Since then, over 60% of the Tasmanian Devil population has been wiped out. In some areas, DFTD killed as much as 90% of the Tasmanian Devil population within 10 years.
The project, led by University of Adelaide zoologist Jeremy Austin, will spend the next three years developing a conservation program to save the Tasmanian Devil the deadly disease.
“We have lost over half our devils in the past 10 years, with an estimated population of 20,000 to 50,000 mature devils left. Extinction within the next 20 years is a real possibility unless we find a vaccine, eradicate the disease and establish captive colonies,” Dr Austin said.
Dr Austin’s team will analyse genetic material from devil populations to understand the origin, spread and impact of the facial cancer.
“We will be looking to develop rapid genetic testing techniques to pick devils that are resistant to the disease and can be used for breeding in captivity,” he said.
Dr Austin said that Tasmanian Devils are more prone to the infectious cancer because they have low levels of genetic diversity and a chromosomal mutation unique among carnivorous mammals.
“We need to establish whether the low levels of genetic diversity are due to recent human impacts or a long-term historical pattern. We also need to look at how the cancer is affecting surviving populations and identify individuals that may be resistant to the disease,” he said.
About the Tasmanian Devil
The Tasmanian Devil is a carnivorous marsupial endemic to Australia. It has been extinct from the mainland for over 400 years, and is now only found in the state of Tasmania - an island 240 kilometers off the south eastern side of the mainland.
In the 1990s, the Tasmanian Devil population stood at between 130,000 and 150,000. Now, current estimates place the population at between 20,000 and 50,000 (including 10,000-25,000 mature individuals).
Given the recent mortality rate, this figure is likely to decline substantially over the coming years, until the disease is eradicated or a vacinne is developed.
The Tasmanian Devil is currently listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered.