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Zoo increases commitment to Tasmanian devil conservation

November 22, 2018
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This photo taken Nov. 9, 2018, shows the recently acquired Tasmanian Devils at the Toledo Zoo in Toledo, Ohio. The zoo is more than halfway through a five-year, $500,000 agreement to fund annual population-monitoring surveys of the Tasmanian devil through the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. It has committed an additional $50,000 per year for three years to fund an effort for targeted surveys of wild devil populations for genetic mapping. (Jetta Fraser/The Blade via AP)

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — The Toledo Zoo increased its commitment to a conservation program for an endangered carnivorous marsupial with a signature spine-tingling scream.

The zoo is more than halfway through a five-year, $500,000 agreement to fund annual population-monitoring surveys of the Tasmanian devil through the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. It has committed an additional $50,000 per year for three years to fund an effort for targeted surveys of wild devil populations for genetic mapping.

“We’ve done a lot of work with them over the last three-and-a-half years, and we’re seeing that benefit the devils in a big way,” said Jeff Sailer, president and chief executive of the zoo. “It’s a great opportunity for the zoo to work directly in conserving an iconic species like the devil.”

Tasmanian devils are found in the wild only on the Australian island state of Tasmania. The animals are threatened by a fatal form of contagious cancer, dubbed devil facial tumor disease that spreads via the animals’ frequent biting when mating or arguing over resources. Sightings of wild devils have plummeted by more than 70 percent overall and up to 95 percent in some areas.

A multifaceted effort is underway to ensure the devils don’t become extinct. The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program is a partnership of Australian national and Tasmanian state government agencies, research centers, laboratories, universities, and wildlife parks and zoos. The effort includes a captive breeding and reintroduction program, wild devil monitoring and research, genetic analysis, a vaccine trial, and an ambassador-animal program through which the Toledo Zoo has three devils on display.

Biologist Samantha Fox, team leader of the population monitoring program, and Carolyn Hogg, research manager for the Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group at the University of Sydney, visited Toledo recently to discuss the program’s various facets and the Toledo Zoo’s involvement.

Fox said on-the-ground monitoring is critical for every aspect of the overall effort to save the species.

“We cannot make important management decisions if we don’t know what’s going on on the ground,” she said.

The annual survey includes trapping devils at eight sites across Tasmania. The research shows that populations affected by the disease are dominated by young animals.

“The only thing that’s keeping these populations going and enabling them to persist in the wild is that the females are breeding earlier,” Fox said. “They’re managing to have a litter of young before they themselves are succumbing to the disease.”

In healthy populations, devils begin breeding at 2 years old. Researchers are seeing devils breeding at just 1 year old when they are still juveniles themselves, Fox said.

There may be a spark of change, however. Fox said the survey has recently trapped a few older devils that don’t have the disease. What that may mean is yet to be determined.

“Whether it’s just luck or whether it’s actually some animals that are evolving to deal with the disease, we don’t know that at this point,” Fox said.

Meanwhile, Hogg is overseeing a new project funded by the Toledo Zoo to examine the genetics of wild populations in targeted areas.

“What we want to do is create a genetic map of the island and compare that to what we’ve got in the insurance metapopulation,” she said.

Genetic diversity among Tasmanian devils is already limited. The effort will help identify if there are any wild genetic lines that aren’t represented in the insurance population. The program would then acquire wild devils with those genetics to ensure the captive population and, by extension, those devils that are reintroduced to the wild are as diverse as possible.

“We know there are some genetic changes happening in the wild,” Hogg said. “The changes we see in the wild we assume is part of the disease going through, but also just might be part of the natural evolutionary process of devils.”

The Toledo Zoo is also home to three Tasmanian devils from the program, two of which are recent newcomers to the Glass City. A female named Bubbles and a male named Superman, both 18 months old, arrived in September to replace females Tatiana and Orchid, who died of old age several months ago.

The remaining devil from the original trio, a male named Nugget, is elderly at 6 years old.

Sailer said zoo officials will discuss continuing to fund the population monitoring program beyond the current five-year commitment.

“It’s not like you do this for five years and the species is saved,” he said. “It’s going to be a long haul.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2AlH9b5

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Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/

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