Thank you for your contribution to our crowdfunding campaign in June 2016. We wanted to let you know what we have accomplished with the support of your funds. As you know, the world has lost 85% of its Tasmanian devils due to a horrid contagious cancer. Things looked bleak. An insurance population was set up to breed devils away from the disease. As the insurance population grew we worried about whether all of the genetic diversity in the species was captured. Genetic diversity in is notoriously low in devils – and maintenance of existing diversity is crucial for long term sustainability of the species. Had we captured all that was out there?
Two years ago we got a tantalising hint that previously unknown devil populations may exist in the remote South West of Tasmania. A colleague collected some scats (faecal samples) that looked remarkably devilish while bushwalking. We did some genetic analysis and showed that the scats did indeed come from devils. We didn’t know that devils were found in the remote South West (SW) and had never studied them. Could they hold new genetic diversity? Could they be disease free? We joined forces with the Tasmanian World Heritage Area Team in the summer of 2016/2017, who along with a team of volunteers from Wildcare SPRATS and Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife, collected 113 scats from across the SW area (see map attached). Our wonderful team in the lab here at the University of Sydney spent all of 2017 extracting and genotyping scats. Of the 113 scats, 87 were from Tasmanian devils. We have found a new genetic variation!! (We are still calculating how much.) Your donation, and the generous support of Toledo Zoo, enabled field teams from the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program and the University of Sydney to travel to Nye Bay and Wreck Bay (marked as yellow stars on the map) in SW Tasmania in December 2017. We flew in by helicopter thanks to the assistance of Helicopter Resources, along with our gear and traps, and spent seven days in the wilderness.
The location was spectacular and very wild. Each team consisted of five people who hiked the 23 PVC pipe traps along a 10 km trap line through thick scrub and steep sand dunes. There was an abundance of wildlife, from birds to wallabies and wombats, and most importantly Tasmanian devils. Sadly, there was also lots of signs of feral cats. We managed to encourage 13 devils into traps, which is fantastic as they were very shy and wary of our traps. There is camera footage of devils sniffing around and digging under traps rather than going in them. We were able to collect tissue samples from the animals we trapped along with another 39 scats. Some of the devils we trapped were 4 and 5 years old, whilst other were breeding, and most importantly there was no signs of the contagious cancer (DFTD). The presence of older animals is encouraging as we know this is the first cohort of individuals to die when DFTD first arrives at a site. So for now, we can say there are two disease free areas in Tasmania, the NW and the SW.
All the samples are now here at the University of Sydney with the Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group. We shall be spending the first half of 2018 extracting and genotyping samples to determine how genetically different the devils in SW Tasmania. This information, along with all our other research findings from the University of Sydney, will be provided to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program in real time so they are able to make evidence-based management decisions. We would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for your contributions, large and small. Without your support this amazing trip would never have occurred. The funds raised through the crowdfunding campaign were used to pay for the helicopters, food for the teams, traps, gloves, vials and most importantly the genotyping of scats in 2017 and the samples in 2018. We have also been supported by Columbus Zoo through their conservation grants, Wildness Equipment who provided tents and tarps for the field trip, and Kathmandu who provided discounted vouchers for the team to purchase new field gear.
Dr Carolyn Hogg & Professor Kathy Belov
Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group