Tasmanian devils living in the southwest of Tasmania are healthy and cute as can be. The deadly form of facial cancer known as Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) that has been running rampant among most of these marsupials has not yet spread to this remote region, announced the Tasmanian Government in a news release.
An expedition into the area has uncovered a small, healthy population of Tasmanian devils and has managed to trap 14 individuals, which now carry the hope of the entire species.
The expedition — conducted by an international team from the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP), the University of Sydney, Australia, and Toledo Zoo, in Ohio — took the researchers deep in the wilderness of the Tasmanian southwest coast, in an area where such a mission had never been attempted before.
After eight days in the wild, the team eventually managed to track down and capture a group of Tasmanian devils, which turned out to be free of DFTD.
“The combined trapping mission across Wreck Bay and Nye Bay saw 14 individual devils trapped,” expedition leader Dr. Sam Fox said in the news release.
“All were in good condition and, importantly, there were no signs of disease,” specified Fox, who is a biologist at the Toledo Zoo and also leads the STDP team.
In other parts of the Australian island, DFTD has decimated Tasmanian devil populations. The cancer, which spreads from one individual to another during mating or fighting for territory, has killed more than 80 percent of all devils across Tasmania, bringing the species to the brink of extinction, the Independent reports.
This small, isolated population may have been kept out of harm’s way due to their superior habitat conditions, the researchers speculate. Unlike the rest of the Tasmanian devils, this small group had “a large home range,” plenty of food sources, and “the right habitat for denning.”
According to Dr. David Pemberton, manager of the STDP, the devils in southwest Tasmania are not restricted to a limited habitat and can roam freely in search of their favorite prey, the Tasmanian pademelons, which are small forest-dwelling marsupials.
The group is also able to scavenge along the coastline for additional protein sources, “such as washed-up fish, or even something bigger like a whale or seal,” said Pemberton.
Yet, their habitat “is very isolated geographically with terrain that devils tend not to cross,” he told ABC News. All this has kept them from interacting with other Tasmanian devils, keeping them safe from infection, he pointed out.
The 14 Tasmanian devils caught by the expedition team were 18 months to 5-years-old, noted Fox. Their age is significant and is a good sign the animals area healthy, considering that the devils in the areas affected by DFTD don’t live to be this old, she explained.
“Finding devils with fresh genetic diversity gives us opportunities,” Pemberton revealed in a statement.
The team has taken ear biopsies to study the genetic make-up of these animals in hopes of finding out what makes the healthy devils genetically different from the infected populations. The answers could end up saving this iconic species, the researchers noted.
The expedition to find these animals was made possible through a crowdfunding campaign, sourced by the University of Sydney, in which 106 donors put up the funds to pay for the trip.