- Associated Press - Saturday, January 16, 2016

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - A critical field-research program helping to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction is getting a huge boost from the Toledo Zoo.

The zoo is contributing $500,000 over the next five years to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, dedicated to an annual population monitoring program.

“We were really interested in that because it is really important to know what the animals are doing, especially if you’re releasing captive animals into the wild,” said Dr. Randi Meyerson, assistant director of animal programs.

Tasmanian devils, the largest species of carnivorous marsupial, are found in the wild only on the Australian island state of Tasmania.

The endangered critters are threatened by a rapidly spreading and always fatal form of contagious cancer dubbed devil facial tumor disease. 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 make sure 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 program, wild devil monitoring and research, work on genetics, a promising vaccine trial, and an ambassador animal program the Toledo Zoo’s three devils are a part of.

Biologist Samantha Fox leads the team responsible for annual monitoring and research of wild devil populations for the parent program. She is now an adjunct employee of the Toledo Zoo, and said the zoo’s commitment helps secure this particular research effort as available government funding shrinks.

“It’s definitely the biggest contribution we’ve had to the program outside our government funding,” Ms. Fox said. “It means our monitoring program can continue for the next five years, and that’s very important.”

Jeff Sailer, executive director of the Toledo Zoo, said the devil program is now the zoo’s largest conservation program in terms of funding.

“Conservation is part of our mission,” he said. “This is the largest (program) at the moment, though we have many others that also get funding.”

The funds are coming primarily from donations, sponsorship, and the sale of devil-related merchandise at the zoo. Any gaps are filled with earned revenue.

“It speaks volumes of this community that they want to help us with this,” Mr. Sailer said.

The monitoring program conducts annual visits to 10 areas throughout Tasmania. The Toledo Zoo’s funding will pay for eight of those sites, with the other two already being funded and managed by the University of Tasmania.

Over a period of a week at each site, devils are caught in humane traps to be counted and thoroughly examined. They are scanned for a microchip that would have been implanted if they had previously been caught, or given one if the animal is new to researchers.

The devils get a full health check, including taking various measurements like weight and length, checking the condition of females’ pouches to see if they have bred or are carrying young, taking an ear biopsy for DNA, and recording any signs of the cancer.

“We then have a picture of the population in that year,” Ms. Fox said. “It gives us a picture of what is happening with each population through time. It’s important for us to get good background knowledge for each population before we can decide how to help that population.”

The program has discovered the cancer generally spreads about 5 to 10 kilometers a year. In areas where the cancer has been present for some time, populations drop by up to 95 percent. The few devils left are typically only a year or two old.

“We thought they would all die out, and then they could put this disease-free captive population into the wild,” Dr. Meyerson said. “But it turns out about 10 percent were surviving and reproducing.”

The females left in a small population are typically breeding sooner than larger devil populations, perhaps because they generally have better body conditions as a result of far less competition for food and resources.

“These few females that have managed to have a litter at 1 year old are just managing to keep the population around,” Ms. Fox said. “It tends to just stay at this static level. It never seems to go down or go up.”

The young adults will still die early because of the disease, leaving their offspring behind and accounting for the researchers’ documentation of small populations of devils entirely of young animals.

While these small populations are persisting, it wouldn’t take much to wipe them out entirely from a specific area, Ms. Fox said. Australia has a well-known problem with roadkill, and devils are primarily scavengers. If the breeding females are killed while eating roadkill, that’s it.

“Part of the next strategy is to look at putting some of our captive devils back into the wild to supplement those populations,” Ms. Fox said.

In 2015, a couple of dozen captive-bred devils were released after being inoculated with a trial vaccine. The monitoring program also will help track those devils, if they show signs of the cancer, and how they impact devil populations.

In the meantime, four American zoos have Tasmanian devils as part of the ambassador program. In addition to Toledo, zoos in San Diego, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles have devils on exhibit.

Toledo’s trio of two females, Tatiana, 3, and Orchid, 2, and a 3-year-old male named Nugget are well settled in their Tembo Trail exhibit. The captive-bred devils are genetically over-represented in the Australian breeding program and subsequently became ambassador animals. They will not be bred; Nugget had a vasectomy before coming to the Glass City.

With microphones in their enclosure and frequent public feedings, the naturally vocal animals have become a popular stop for visitors to the zoo to hear their signature screams as they argue with each other over their meals.

“The three of them are very compatible and we’ve been very happy,” Dr. Meyerson said. “People seem to really enjoy them.”


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

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