Scientists consider reintroducing Tasmanian devils to Australian mainland

Researchers say the reintroduction of devils to mainland Australia would likely benefit a range of small and medium-sized species.

By Brooks Hays

SYDNEY, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- Australia has a feral cat problem. Who doesn't? They also have a feral fox problem. Both animals have been blamed for hurting biodiversity Down Under.

One of the reasons for those problems, researchers say, is the diminished numbers of dingos in Australia.


But researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia are suggesting Tasmanian devils be subbed in for the absent dingos, a free-range dog species classified as a subspecies of the gray wolf.

Tasmanian devils haven't lived on Australia's mainland for 3,000 years. They went extinct long ago, and are now relegated to the island state for which they're named.

But a new UNSW study suggests their return would offer ecological benefits and fill the void left in areas where dingos, an unwanted threat to livestock, have been culled by farmers and ranchers.

The study was published this week in the journal Biological Conservation.

"There are large areas where the dingo is gone and we need a predator who can suppress fox numbers," lead study author Daniel Hunter, a PhD candidate at UNSW's School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, explained in a press release. "The devil is the obvious answer."


"It doesn't pose as serious a risk to livestock, and it has played a major role in stopping foxes from establishing a foothold in Tasmania," Hunter added.

To gauge the potential benefits of the reintroduction of Tasmanian devils, researchers built ecological models based on their understanding of the behaviors and impacts of dingoes, devils and foxes. When they crunched the numbers, researchers found that devils would likely return a sense of balance to Australia's wild habitats.

Not only would devils likely reduce fox and cat numbers, but they'd also likely shrink grazing herbivore populations, like wallabies, which plow away vegetation that serves as vital hiding ground for small prey species on the run.

Overall, devils would likely benefit a range of small and medium-sized species, such as bandicoots, ringtail possums and a variety of rodents. A reintroduction effort could also help save the Tasmanian devil, which has been decimated by a unique tumor disease on its native island.

"Devils aren't a silver bullet, but we think that they could do a lot of good on the mainland, and this study indicates that a monitored process of reintroduction could actually work," said study co-author Mike Letnic, an associate professor at UNSW. "We need to take action to arrest the extinction crisis we have in Australia, and that requires being bold and trying something new."


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