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Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Dingo
Unfairly judged?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Feral cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Rabbits
Perhaps not so adapted to Australia

Wombat
Keg of muscle


 

 

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Tasmanian Devil
Reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil to the mainland

The marsupial bites back

Australian fauna is struggling on mainland. In 2010, Australia had 1750 species on the threatened list. 59 mammals were at risk of immediate extinction and 18 mammals had gone extinct in the last 100 years. While native fauna is struggling on the mainland, it is thriving in Tasmania where low density farming communities are spread throughout the state. Aside from the thylacine, Tasmania has not lost a single marsupial since colonisation.

The different outcomes has been attributed to the Tasmanian devil preventing foxes from ever being able to gain a foothold. The fox was first introduced to Tasmania in 1864 but it didn't take hold. Signs of continued deliberate or accidental introduction were again seen in 1972 when a fox was caught in a rabbit trap. More signs were seen in 1998 when a fox stowed away in a container from Melbourne. Despite all the trade and all the deliberate attempts at introduction, fox populations always died out.

The fox probably died out because it one of the few animals that devils can easily kill. Fox dens are very smelly, and quickly sniffed out by the Devils. Even if the mother fox is at the den to protect her young, she is no match for the Devil. Palaeontologist Stephen Wroe has analysed how they would go in a one-on-one battle and found:

"In one-to-one situations, our results suggest that the devil would easily prevail and even give dingoes [wild dogs] a run for their money."

Because the devil is not a particularly agile animal, it finds it difficult to hunt live prey. As it is primarily a carrion feeder, it has evolved a good sense of smell to sniff out dead or dying animals, and powerful jaws to chase off any other predator already eating the animal. (A 10kg animal can exert the same biting pressure of a 40kg dog.) Once it has gained control of the dead animal, in a matter of hours, the Devil can consume up to a third of its body weight.

Native animals have pouches so do not need to fear the devil, and might well have evolved pouches because of the devil. As a consequence, devils would probably learn that following a fox scent leads to a far more bountiful meal than the following the scent of any native animal.

Although devils may have kept foxes out of Tasmanian completely, they have not been able to keep out cats. This is probably because cats can make dens in trees where their kittens are safe from the devil. Nevertheless, cat populations are much lower in Tasmania than the mainland, and this is probably as a result of devil populations chasing them off their kills. Over million of years, devils evolved a keen sense of smell and a feeding style that involved following the trails of quolls in the hope that a quoll would kill and animal, and could then be chased off their kills. With cats occupying a similar niche to quolls, devils have simply changed the scents they follow.

As well helping the environment by attacking foxes and cats, devils help farmers by maintaining hygiene. Any dead livestock is quickly consumed thus reducing the threat of blowfly strike. On the downside, devils have been known to steal lambs and chickens.

Some scientists, such as Professor Chris Johnson, have advocated reintroducing the devil to mainland in order to do make life difficult for cats and foxes there. According to Johnson,

 “If we could establish large populations of devils in parts of the mainland, they might help to control the threat from foxes and cats. This is speculation, but it has been suggested that one of the reasons that foxes haven’t been able to establish in Tasmania until recently is because a large population of devils made it very, very difficult for them to get established.”

Another supporter is Dr Euan Ritchie:

“The recent introduction of the red fox into Tasmania and the decline of the native apex predator the Tasmanian devil is predicted to cause extinction of many species formerly abundant on mainland Australia and Tasmania…We would argue that this grave situation justifies seriously considering management programs where apex predators are reintroduced or allowed to recolonise habitats where they once occurred.”

Another is Dr Menna Jones,

“The things that we have seen, we know that we’re getting a rise in feral cat numbers, we know that we have foxes in the state, and there is a very dedicated eradication effort for foxes. But decline in Devil populations is creating exactly the perfect conditions for an eruption of foxes…The eastern quoll decline is very tightly correlated with Devil decline but it is also strongly influenced by rainfall and particularly the severe drought that we’ve had in the last decade. But it could be foxes, there could be a very quiet effect of foxes right across the landscape that we may not detect until it is nearly too late…The really critical thing is that we try to bring Devils back into the Tasmanian ecosystem to fulfil their ecological role as a top predator in suppressing cats, suppressing foxes, suppressing over-abundant macropod prey, wallabies particularly, wallabies and pademelons. This really should drive our management strategies, and one management strategy is to put them away safe in captive insurance populations where in the event of extinction in the wild we could reintroduce them in perhaps 50 years time. We hope we don’t get to go down that route.”

Some opponents have argued that it would be too risky because the devil might hunt native fauna as well. For example, Sarah Hartwell seemed to be a critic of the plan and wrote:

 "In 1995, the wildlife issue became more urgent with a rabbit calcivirus outbreak causing predators in previously rabbit-infested areas to turn more and more to native animals. New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service stepped up the use of poison bait (not trapping and destruction) to kill foxes, feral cats and dogs, but at the same time, some scientists spoke of reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil into mainland Australia in the hope that it will prey on fox cubs, kittens etc. It was not stated how Tasmanian Devils would be trained to kill only introduced species and not kill native species. Many would question the wisdom of (re)introducing any predator likely to prey on already "decimated" fauna."

It was a bit of an illogical argument. The devil is no greyhound and is a scavenger for a reason. It would likely 1) prey on animals that make dens for their young 2) chase smaller predators like foxes and cats off ther kills and 3) eat carrion that could be a meal for foxes and cats.

Even though there are very strong arguments for re-introducing the devil to the mainland, at present the economic interests of the Tasmanian Government is preventing any trials from occurring. Specifically, in 2016 a spokesman for the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment stated:

"The release of devils onto the mainland is not part of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program recovery program. The focus is securing the future of the devil where it belongs in the wild in Tasmania. The Tasmanian government does not support any proposal for an introduction of devils to the mainland. Such an introduction is not required to secure the future of the Tasmanian devil."

Economically, this position ensures any devil-targeted research funds go to Tasmania or that any mainland researcher would have to go to Tasmania if awarded research funds. Furthermore, the confinement of devils to Tasmania (or Tasmanian zoos) increases the tourism prospects of Tasmania. These twin economic interests would be threatened by mainland conservation efforts and devils surviving on the mainland. In short, the very existence of a host of mainland animals as well as the devil itself is threatened by Tasmanian politicians wanting to exploit it for money. (*The current Tasmanian Minister for the Environment is Liberal Party member Matthew Groom who has shown his personal self interest in more important to him than Australian animals.)

 

Links

Should we move Tasmanian Devils back to the mainland?

Devil of a job for wildlife tracking app

Australia debating using dingoes, Tasmanian devils to control invasive species

 

Environmental Issues

Environmental problems
The cultural basis of defining environmental problems

Indigenous environmentalism
Differences between Indigenous and non-indigenous land management

Sustainability
The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

Bush fire prevention
To go native or exotic?