Tasmanian devils are back in mainland Australia for the first time in 3,000 years. A reintroduction project recently released 11 devils at a 1,000-acre wildlife sanctuary in Barrington Tops National Park about 130 miles north of Sydney, reports Lisa Cox for the Guardian.
In March, the “rewilding” project released 15 devils in what they termed a “soft launch,” reports Jason Bittel for National Geographic. The recent release brings the group of pioneering marsupial carnivores to 26 individuals in total.
Tasmanian devils are the largest marsupial carnivore left on Earth, but they’re still no larger than a small dog—the biggest males top out around 30 pounds. Despite their size, their ferocity and bite strength are legendary, allowing devils to crunch through bone as they scavenge for their dinner.
The precise cause of their disappearance from mainland Australia is unknown, but, according to National Geographic, human hunting may have eliminated many of the species that the devils relied on for food. The Guardian also suggests that changing climate and the introduction of the dingo may have also played roles in the devil’s extinction in Australia.
A surviving population has thrived in Tasmania, a large island off the southeastern tip of Australia, but the tenacious scavengers have struggled in recent decades. First detected in 1996, wild devils in Tasmania have been beset by a deadly and contagious cancer that affects their faces and mouths. The aptly named, Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) is the only known infectious cancer and has spread through the population through biting, fighting and mating, according to the Aussie Ark, one of the conservation groups leading the reintroduction. The population has since been reduced to just 25,000 individuals. Because of the threat of DFTD, the reintroduction project has taken great pains to ensure the devils released in Australia are free of the disease.
Bringing the species back to Australia is a bright spot in a year marred by the aftermath of fires that killed, injured or displaced an estimated 3 billion animals. Ecologically, there is hope that a revived population of Tasmanian devils could help restore balance to the Australian ecosystem, which has been ravaged by introduced species, like feral cats and foxes, endangering native wildlife, especially birds, reports Brian Kahn for Gizmodo.
“The presence of devils on the landscape seems to put the cats off a bit,” David Hamilton, a researcher at the University of Tasmania who studies devils and was not involved in the reintroduction project, tells National Geographic. Devils don’t typically eat cats, but cats seem to want to avoid a possible altercation with the scrappy marsupials and opt to hunt at dawn and dusk, ceding the night to the nocturnal devils. Per National Geographic, this time shift may allow native species, such as bandicoots, that emerge under the cover of darkness, a respite from the feline marauders.
But the full ramifications of the devils’ comeback remain unknown, and the project’s organizers will be keeping a close eye on the devils and their surrounding environment inside the fenced-in preserve via tracking collars and camera traps.
The eventual goal is to bring the devils back on a larger scale, beyond the fences of the preserve.
“Once we move and bleed out from sanctuary-type management into natural landscape, the concept is that we have a natural predator roaming the landscape,” Tim Faulkner, the president of Aussie Ark, tells the Guardian. “Tasmanian devils represent a very unique natural control measure for our feral pests and in the absence of mainland predators they bring balance back to the ecosystem.”