The largest analysis of Tasmanian devil genetics to date has found that protected populations are as healthy as wild ones, raising hopes for the survival of endangered species.
Last year, a number of plans to restore endangered species were scrapped by the former government; new research now shows that “insurance populations” – isolated from threats to prevent extinction – can help save many animals.
In particular, one of the world’s largest wildlife genetic studies has found that insurance populations of the endangered Tasmanian devil in zoos and on Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania are as genetically diverse as wild populations. This means that insurance animals are so healthy and likely to breed and can be reintroduced into the wild, thus increasing the number of species.
The study published iScienceis led by the University of Sydney’s Wildlife Genomics Group, in collaboration with the Tasmanian Government’s Save the Tasmanian Devil program.
In their heyday, Tasmanian devils, found only in their state of the same name, were discovered at a density of 1.3 devils per km.2. The population in most of the state has decreased by approximately 80% since 1996 due to contagious cancer, devilish facial tumor disease (DFTD). Disease is not the only problem the devils face: they are also threatened by road killings, habitat destruction and climate change. Although there have been no local disappearances as a result of DFTD, populations remain scarce.
The fact that animals in the insurance population are as genetically stable as wild ones shows that specific breeding strategies are effective, says study co-author Dr. Carolyn Hogg.
“The consistency is probably due to our current strategic management of the insurance population, which includes over 37 zoos and devils on Maria Island.
“By integrating orphans who have been exposed to DFTD in the wild, we ensure that we capture all the genetic changes resulting from the disease.”
James Biggs, director of population conservation and management, the Zoo and Aquarium Association, which manages the protected Tasmanian devil population, said: “This program demonstrates the role and value of zoos in buying time for a species until the main ones are addressed. threats and wild populations can be restored. “
Dr Hogg added that the breeding strategy could be applied to other endangered species and was therefore a useful tool to tackle the global biodiversity crisis. “We have already applied it to species that are part of different populations of safe havens (fenced areas) in mainland Australia, such as bilby and wolves – an extremely rare, small baggy animal,” she said.
Some 1 million species are already threatened with extinction worldwide, many in decades, according to a recent evaluation report by the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, Australia is a world leader in mammal extinction.
Between 2012 and 2021, researchers studied more than 1,300 wild and insurance populations of Tasmanian devils. They are collected from 31 places in the range of the species – over 64,519 square kilometers.
They analyzed both genome-wide diversity and the diversity of more than 500 critical genes related to immunity and reproduction, and found no significant differences between wild and insurance animals.
They also found that despite previous university research suggesting low genetic diversity of the species, there are actually six genetically diverse groups of devils common in Tasmania. “Improving gene flow between these regions can lead to improved genetic diversity of species,” said Dr. Hogg.
Researchers began trial runs of insurance devil populations in 2015. With the results of the new study, they will continue to monitor animal health and genetics for at least four to six years – the equivalent of two to three generations of devils.
The largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, the endangered Tasmanian devil is found only on the island nation of Tasmania. It was once distributed in Australia, but is thought to have disappeared on the continent about 400 years ago due to predation by wild dogs. The fierce name of the devils is with the kind assistance of the early European settlers, who watched them angrily fight for halves and defend themselves from predators.
The contagious form of cancer causes Tasmanian devils to become antisocial
Katherine A. Farquharson et al, Restoring Belief in Conservation Action: Maintaining Wild Genetic Diversity through the Tasmanian Devil Insurance Program, iScience (2022). DOI: 10.1016 / j.isci.2022.104474
Provided by the University of Sydney
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