Zoo Wildlife Alliance supports research into ‘insurance populations’ of endangered species

Tasmanian devil
San Diego Zoo’s Tasmanian Devils, McLovin and Quirindi, at Home in the Australian Outback by Conrad Prebys. Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo.

New research shows that insurance populations — those isolated from threats to prevent extinctions — could help preserve many animals.

The study was authored and partially funded by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the Toledo Zoo, both of which have such captive populations, in this case of the endangered Tasmanian Devil.

The work, one of the largest wildlife genetic studies in the world, has found insurance populations of the carnivorous marsupial, in zoos and on Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania, are genetically as diverse as wild populations.

This means insurance animals are just as healthy and likely to reproduce and can be reintroduced into the wild, boosting the species count.

The research, published in iScienceis led by the Wildlife Genomics Group at the University of Sydney, in collaboration with the Government of Tasmania.

The population of the Tasmanian devil – found only in its namesake state – has declined by around 80% since 1996 due to a contagious cancer, devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). They are also threatened by roadkill, habitat destruction and climate change.

The fact that animals in the insurance population are as genetically robust as wild animals shows that specific breeding strategies are effective, said study co-author Dr. Carolyn Hogg.

“The consistency is likely due to our continued strategic management of the insurance population, which includes over 37 zoos, as well as demons on Maria Island,” she explained. “By integrating orphan joeys that were exposed to DFTD in the wild, we ensured that we captured all of the genetic changes resulting from the disease.

James Biggs, director of conservation and population management for the Zoo and Aquarium Association, which manages the protected population of Tasmanian devils, said: “This program demonstrates the role and value of zoos in saving time for a species until major threats are addressed, and wild populations can be restored.

Hogg added that the breeding strategy can be applied to other threatened species and is therefore a useful tool in dealing with the global biodiversity crisis.

“We’ve already applied it to species that are in different safe haven (fenced site) populations on the Australian mainland, such as bilbies and woylies – an extremely rare small marsupial,” she said.

According to the recent assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), around 1 million species are already threatened with extinction worldwide, many within decades.

Between 2012 and 2021, researchers examined more than 1,300 wild and insurance Tasmanian devils. They were collected from 31 sites across the species’ range – covering over 40,000 square miles.

The researchers analyzed both genome-wide diversity and the diversity of more than 500 critically important genes associated with immunity and reproduction and found no substantial differences between wild and human animals. insurance animals.

The researchers began the trial versions of the Insurance Population Demons in 2015. With the results of the new study, they will continue to monitor the animals’ health and genetics for at least four to six years, which is equivalent to two to three generations of demons.

The world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian devil was once widespread across Australia, but is thought to have become extinct on the mainland around 400 years ago due to predation by wild dogs.

The devils’ name, courtesy of early European settlers, derives from their fiery nature – settlers had observed them fighting angrily for mates and defending themselves against predators.


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