The Zoo’s Wildlife Alliance supports research on “insurance populations” of endangered species

Tasmanian devil
The Tasmanian devils at the San Diego Zoo, McLean and Quirindi, at their home in the Australian outback of Conrad Prebis. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Zoo.

New research shows that insurance populations – those that are isolated from threats to prevent extinction – can help save many animals.

The study was authored and partially funded by the San Diego Zoo and Toledo Zoo Alliance for Wildlife, both of which have such captive populations, in this case the endangered Tasmanian devil.

The work, one of the world’s largest genetic studies of wildlife, found that insurance populations of carnivorous marsupials, zoos and 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 in iScienceis led by the Wildlife Genomics Group at the University of Sydney, in collaboration with the Government of Tasmania.

The Tasmanian devil population – found only in the state of the same name – has declined by approximately 80% since 1996 due to contagious cancer, devil’s facial tumor disease (DFTD). They are also at risk of road killings, habitat destruction and climate change.

The fact that animals in the insurance population are as genetically stable as wild ones shows that specific breeding strategies are effective, said 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, as well as the devils of Maria Island,” she explained. “By integrating orphans who have been exposed to DFTD in the wild, we ensure that we capture all the genetic changes that result from the disease.

James Biggs, director of population conservation and management at the Zoo and Aquarium Association, which manages the Tasmanian devil’s protected population, said: “This program demonstrates the role and value of zoos in buying time for a species until the main threats, and wild populations can be restored. “

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 woyles – an extremely rare, small baggy animal,” she said.

About 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).

Between 2012 and 2021, researchers surveyed more than 1,300 wild and insurance populations of Tasmanian devils. They are collected from 31 places in the range of the species – covering more than 40,000 square miles.

The researchers analyzed both genome-wide diversity and the diversity of more than 500 critical genes associated with immunity and reproduction, and found no significant differences between wild and insurance animals.

Researchers began trial launches 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 world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian devil was once distributed in Australia, but is thought to have disappeared from the continent about 400 years ago due to predation by wild dogs.

The name of the devils, with the kind assistance of the early European settlers, stems from their fierce nature – the settlers watched them fight angrily for halves and defend themselves from predators.

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