Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?

Devils really are quite cute…and have an undeserved reputation for being vicious. Photo taken at the Tasmanian government’s Taroona Wildlife Centre, which breeds devils for reintroduction.

Devils really are quite cute…and have an undeserved reputation for being vicious. Photo taken at the Tasmanian government’s Taroona Wildlife Centre, which breeds devils for reintroduction.

Tasmanian devils are bedeviled with a most hideous disease, and conservationists are having a devil of a time dealing with it. It would be funny, the devil jokes, if it wasn’t so sad. This magnificent animal, still best known as a Saturday morning cartoon, is facing a severe threat in the form of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). Almost universally fatal, this strange, contagious form of cancer is marching across the pristine habitats of Tasmania, wiping out the devil population like a giant wave of death. How does one tackle such a monumental problem? The job of a conservationist is never easy, but this one is particularly intractable.

An animal caretaker shows onlookers just how “vicious” devils are. No harm done, but, hopefully, they have a shirt replacement program. Photo taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, an early leader in the conservation breeding program.

An animal caretaker shows onlookers just how “vicious” devils are. No harm done; hopefully, they have a shirt replacement program. Photo taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, an early leader in the conservation breeding program.

Exploring answers to the question “How can we do something to help the devil?” was the goal of my recent trip to Tasmania, where I met with the biologists leading the charge to save the devil. One approach is to study the disease and devil genetics, and a number of scientists are doing just that, including a postdoctoral fellow from San Diego Zoo Global. But I’m an ecologist and reintroduction biologist, so I met with the field team biologists working for the Tasmanian government. A talented and passionate group, they opened my eyes to these bedeviling problems.

Dr. Samantha Fox, Team Leader, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has found what she’s looking for: a devil in one of her baited traps.

Dr. Samantha Fox, Team Leader, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, has found what she’s looking for: a devil in one of her baited traps.

First on my agenda was to visit the breeding centers. The idea here is to breed a “clean” population free of disease to reintroduce back to the wild. That program is doing well and already has a population of 600 plus. Next, I visited Maria Island, where the first group of devils was reintroduced a year ago. This place is “devil heaven,” so full of prey that devils would be hard-pressed to go hungry. With no vehicular traffic and only an on-foot tourist industry, human interference is minimal. I then visited the Tasman peninsula, slated to receive devils next year. Here, it will be a little messier. There are people, roads, and potential conflict with farmers, and it’s a peninsula, not an island. To minimize the chance of reinfection, a fence is being built across a narrow isthmus to keep DFTD devils from entering and spreading disease.

Dr. Fox bags a devil and gently extracts it, teeth and all.

Dr. Fox bags a devil and gently extracts it, teeth and all.

My last stop was the site of the monitoring program to meet with the Tasmanian government’s Dr. David (Doozie) Pemberton and team heading up the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. This team is trapping and studying devil populations all over Tasmania, and I caught up with them on the northern part of the island. We set traps, and a few devils trickled into them, but it was clear DFTD had wreaked its havoc here already.

The whole process was an eye-opener for me, and I gained a whole new perspective on these devils. At the breeding centers I had seen and heard the ungodly commotion they make when fed a tasty wallaby. It was just what you would expect of an animal named devil (so named by early European settlers listening to the eerie sounds of the Tasmanian night). But these wild, trapped devils were a whole different animal. I watched in amazement as the biologist gently dumped her catch into a burlap sack. Now, I’ve done this with quite a few animals, and all of them go ballistic when they hit the bag. The bag looks like, well, like it’s got a devil in it. But these devils just go keplunk! The biologist gently rolled down the bag, lifted the devil’s head, opened its mouth, and examined its teeth. Yes, examined its teeth, the teeth of the animal with one of the strongest bites for its size in the Animal Kingdom. The devil just stared wide-eyed and put up no struggle at all. These devils were…so sweet.

The gape of the Tasmanian devil, displayed here in threat, seems a wonder of nature. But it’s the closing of the mouth that you have to worry about.

The gape of the Tasmanian devil, displayed here in threat, seems a wonder of nature. But it’s the closing of the mouth that you have to worry about.

This experience gave me a whole new perspective on devils and no small amount of respect for them and the biologists working to save them. We exchanged ideas, and I shared a few lessons learned from reintroducing other species. We’re planning on following up and working together more in the future. I can only hope that Tasmania can save this iconic species, and that our Zoo can play a small part. And, yes, I do have sympathy for the devil.

Ron Swaisgood is the Brown Endowed director of Applied Animal Ecology, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Titi Monkeys and Me.

One Response to Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?

  1. Hi Ron and Team

    STDP Update

    Elizabeth has arrived and joined us immediately on a quick trip to check out a possible reintroduction site for devils, visit a key devil breeding facility at Devils@ cradle and enjoy a drive through the Tassie country side.

    We have a huge program for the year so are busy planning:
    the annual monitoring program where we trap devils for a week or so at 8 different sites across Tassie
    the translocation to Tasman Peninsula, and trials of wild devil recovery at Narwantapu and Stoney Head
    assisting with immunization trials (conducted by Greg Woods team). These trials include the devils to be released at Naranwantapu and Stoney Head
    the dampening dispersal trials with the San Diego team and Elissa Cameron from UTAS
    allele retention modeling for genetic rescue of small populations (Narawantapu) with Uni of Sydney.
    Maria island monitoring

    We are also expanding the Cressy facility so it can become the major site for the Insurance Population in Tasmania.
    A busy year which with help such as your team are providing will be a huge step forwards for the STDP.

    All the best
    Doozie