Tasmanian devils are endangered in the wild, in part because of a communicable cancer.
ALEX GOETZ/TOLEDO ZOO Enlarge
They won’t spin around in mini tornadoes destroying everything in their paths, but the Toledo Zoo hopes a new species set to join its menagerie for the first time will captivate visitors as much as their cartoon counterpart.
Construction has begun on an exhibit in Tembo Trail for three Tasmanian devils slated to arrive at the zoo later this month. The ambassador animals are part of a multifaceted effort by a number of entities from Australia and elsewhere to save the species as it hurtles toward the edge of extinction in the wild.
“This is sort of the last of these real iconic Tasmanian species,” said Jeff Sailer, the zoo’s executive director. “They’ve gone all out to save them.”
The Toledo Zoo will be one of only six American zoos with Tasmanian devils, the largest species of carnivorous marsupial. The nocturnal animals are primarily scavengers but are also a top predator in their native Australian island state of Tasmania, the only wild place the species calls home.
In 1996, photographers first documented devils with horrific facial tumors in Mount William National Park in the northeast corner of Tasmania. Devil Facial Tumor Disease is an extremely unusual kind of malady in that it is a form of contagious cancer.
The disease, spread by the frequent biting devils are known for, causes tumors around the mouth, head, and neck. Along with the breakdown of bodily functions, the tumors often make eating difficult or impossible. Infected animals typically die within six months of the appearance of the first tumor.
Sightings of wild devils have rapidly declined by more than 70 percent overall and up to 95 percent in some areas, subsequently making them an endangered species. There is no true estimate of wild populations because of various difficulties surveying them, but they are thought to number between 10,000 and 100,000.
Insuring a future
The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program is a partnership of Australian national government and Tasmanian state government agencies, research centers, and laboratories, universities, and wildlife parks and zoos.
In 2005, the program began creating an “insurance population” to secure the species’ survival by trapping devils in areas without evidence of the cancer and placing them in captivity. Devils only live about seven to eight years in captivity, but a breeding program has boosted the number of captive individuals throughout Australia to more than 600.
Biologist Carolyn Hogg is the devil species program coordinator for the Sydney-based Zoo Aquarium Association, which represents zoos in Australia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific. The association is contracted by the Tasmanian government to manage the insurance population, including the ambassador program of which the Toledo Zoo’s future animals are a part.
Ms. Hogg said the ambassador program sends out devils whose genes are over-represented within the Australian insurance population.
“A focus of an insurance population is to capture as much genetic diversity and maintain that as long as we can,” she said, noting that the species does not have many distinct genetic lines as it is.
As with any other species, some devils are more successful breeders and have more offspring than others. That skews the gene pool, and individuals that have too many relatives and won’t be bred use up valuable space and resources within the program.
“That’s really the purpose of the ambassador program,” Ms. Hogg said. “We send those devils overseas, they help raise awareness, and it assists with conservation.”
A Toledo trio
To that end, two females — Tatiana, 3, and Orchid, 2 — and a 3-year-old male named Nugget will head to the Toledo Zoo from Monarto Zoo in Monarto South, southeast of Adelaide. The three are second-generation captive-born animals.
Randi Meyerson, assistant director of animal programs, says wild Tasmanian devils are responding to the threat of disease by reproducing earlier. The zoo will welcome three ‘ambassador’ devils later this month.
A Toledo zookeeper will first visit fly down under to be trained in caring for devils, then escort the trio back with an Australian keeper who will help train other Toledo Zoo staff.
The timing of the devils’ arrival is pending the Australian government’s review of the zoo’s enclosure for them, Mr. Sailer said. Photos of the completed exhibit will be sent to Australia for approval, and then permits will be issued and flights booked.
But the zoo’s commitment doesn’t end with taking in three devils. The zoo has committed to funding a five-year, on-the-ground conservation research program monitoring devil populations in areas of Tasmania where the disease has decimated their numbers.
“At one point, they thought they would all go extinct and so they have this insurance population that would be released back in,” said Dr. Randi Meyerson, assistant director of animal programs at the Toledo Zoo. “They are finding that about 90 percent are gone in these areas, but there are still about 10 percent. We’re trying to figure out what that means.”
Dr. Meyerson said wild devils appear to be responding to the threat of the disease by reproducing earlier. Infected female devils are not transmitting the cancer to the young inside their pouches.
“All of the initial modeling in the 2000s said the devils would go extinct,” Ms. Hogg said. “But we still have not seen any localized extinction. They are persisting in very low populations.”
The zoo’s monitoring program also will look at how such low numbers affect a population with regard to inbreeding and other challenges, and the effects of reintroducing animals from the Australian breeding program.
A spreading scourge
The devils may be able to eke out an existence in spite of the disease, and scientists are working on a vaccine that is promising, but that doesn’t mean the species isn’t still at risk of becoming extinct in the wild.
“Disease will take a species to the brink of extinction, then other things will push them over the edge,” Ms. Hogg said.
From the initial cases in the northeast corner of Tasmania, the cancer spread rapidly south and west. It was identified on the west coast about two months ago, Ms. Hogg said, and is now found nearly everywhere in Tasmania. Two pockets in the southwest and northwest corners have no known cases yet, though monitoring the smaller devil populations in those areas is extremely challenging because of the difficult terrain and lack of roads.
An exhibit for the Tasmanian devils is being constructed inside Tembo Trail. The Australian government must approve the enclosure before issuing final permits.
“We assume that if the disease isn’t there yet, it will get there,” Ms. Hogg said.
To help fund its research monitoring program, the zoo will sell devil-related souvenirs in gift shops and add the devils to the list of species for the donation-based Zoo PAL and Conservation Today programs.
“They are such an iconic species,” Mr. Sailer said. “That helps us to really capitalize on their iconic nature to raise funding to help the animals in the wild.”
If voters approve an November ballot measure to renew a 10-year, 1-mill capital improvement tax levy, the devils will become part of a new, enclosed exhibit near the formal gardens featuring animals discovered by primarily British explorers from the 1770s to the 1830s. The exploration theme will feature animals from areas such as Australia, the Caribbean, and South America, including the zoo’s Galapagos tortoises.
More information about the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program is available online at tassiedevil.com.au.
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