Tasmanian Devils Gone Wild: How an Iconic Animal Can Save Australia’s Wildlife

Scientists say moving the marsupial carnivores to the mainland could help restore the continent’s ecological balance—and save the devils from extinction.
(Photo: Anoek De Groot/AFP/Getty Images)
Aug 26, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Australia is out of balance. Because of invasive predators like foxes and cats, the nation has more mammals facing extinction than anyplace else on Earth. As many as 30 species have already disappeared.

How can the country stop this environmental onslaught? Some scientists and conservationists have suggested an out-of-the-box idea: Move Tasmanian devils from their island home to the mainland.

It’s not that crazy. The famous snarling, carnivorous marsupials existed on the mainland until about 3,500 years ago. The arrival of people—and more important, dingoes—down under around 5,000 years ago spelled their doom. Now, the devils live only on the island for which they are named.

For many centuries, dingoes fulfilled the same ecological role as the devils they had wiped out. They ate midsize herbivores like kangaroos and wallabies and kept their populations in check. This prevented herbivores from eating too much vegetation, which gave smaller mammals the protective habitat necessary to thrive.

That changed after Europeans—and sheep—arrived in Australia. Dingoes kill sheep, so people have killed off large numbers of dingoes. The wild dogs have all but disappeared from large portions of their range, including the southeastern states of New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia.

That has caused cascading ecological impacts. As dingoes disappeared, fox and cat populations skyrocketed. As those predators increased, the numbers of small mammals plummeted.

A paper recently published in Biological Conservation says Tasmanian devils could fulfill much the same role as dingoes. Evidence of why this could work is evident on the island of Tasmania. “Tasmania is a perfect case study,” said the study’s lead author, Daniel Hunter, a doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales. “The island is teeming with native wildlife, and they have been coexisting with devils there just fine.”

The animals that don’t do well when devils are present? Foxes and cats.

Hunter says devils could serve as ecological surrogates in areas where dingoes have been eradicated or had their numbers reduced. It wouldn’t be perfect, because devils are about half the size of dingoes and can’t tackle the biggest herbivores. Also, livestock owners might resist the introduction of yet another predator, because devils can take down young sheep. Still, it would be a start toward returning balance, much the way reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park helped to restore the ecosystem there.

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Bringing devils to mainland Australia would have one more big benefit: It could help save devils themselves from extinction. Over the past 20 years, tens of thousands of the animals have died from a communicable cancer called devil facial tumor disease, for which there is no cure. Moving a disease-free population to the mainland, the researchers say, could provide a chance for the species to thrive in a safe setting. (Some devils have been moved to protected sanctuaries on the mainland, but none so far have been released into the wild.)

They’d even be safe from the old threat of dingoes, as the dogs have mostly been wiped out in the areas where the paper suggests devils could be reintroduced. Ongoing campaigns to kill dingoes using an aerially dropped toxin called 1080 would keep that protection in place, especially because devils are much less susceptible than dingoes to the poison.

Devils aren’t the only possible solution to the Australia’s wildlife woes. Others have suggested bringing dingoes back into large portions of their former range to reinstate their ecological role. Hunter thinks that won’t happen, given ranchers’ political influence.

Hunter and other conservationists say the next big step is to keep talking with livestock owners to find a suitable and welcome site for devil reintroduction under controlled conditions. “I think when the time comes to trial a reintroduction, there will be no problem with finding a site that will be suitable,” he said.