Tasmanian devil discovered in SW Tasmania, genetically diverse

25 May 2016

Since 2007 the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney has been leading research into the genetics of the endangered Tasmanian devil. Until now, no-one has been able to genotype devils from the remote south-west a UNESCO World Heritage site, known for its wilderness and rugged terrain.

University of Sydney PhD student, Rebecca Gooley, got results from the first ones this week. Ms Gooley analysed dried devil scats collected at four locations in the SW Tasmania from five individuals. Using 17 microsatellite markers, Ms Gooley was able to show there were at least nine different alleles across three markers, with a further four alleles giving a weak signal.

Professor of comparative genomics at the University of Sydney, Kathy Belov, said confirmation of devils in the protected south-west was reassuring for the future of the species: "We are excited because it means that if we go and collect devils from the south-west, we will be able to increase the genetic diversity of our insurance population on the mainland," Professor Below said.

"It also means we can do genetic rescue to increase genetic diversity of devils across Tasmania," she said.

For a long time, Professor Belov and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program have been advocating for the need to get samples from Tasmania's south-west. Yet with no road access, obtaining samples is difficult, with access only possible by foot, boat, or by flying in by helicopter. Funding applications to do this have been unsuccessful to date.

A collaborator of Professor Belov's had been bushwalking in the area in January and posted the scat samples to the University. Researchers wereable to retrieve DNA from the dried samples, which confirminged not only that are there devils in the south-west but they are genetically different to the ones that have been studied before.

Dr David Pemberton, Manager Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, said: "This discovery is a perfect example of academic research and conservation management working together for the greater benefit of the devil."

Professor Belov concluded: "Every effort should now be made to access devil samples from the SW Tasmania to ensure the genetic diversity of the species is maintained in the longer-term.".