Droppings Reveal That Not All Tasmanian Devils Are Clones

This Tasmanian devil is genetically almost identical to all other known devils, but now a distinct subpopulation has been found. Tim Ezzy/Shutterstock

Tasmanian devils fascinate researchers not just for their distinctive personality, but because they are so genetically similar to each other – almost clones. This has made Sarcophilus harrisii, the largest surviving marsupial carnivores, vulnerable to the transmitted cancer known as devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). Now, evidence has emerged of an isolated population with different genetics, possibly representing salvation from the disease.

The south-west of Tasmania is sparsely populated, largely taken up by a World Heritage Area. Although the Franklin River and Macquarie Harbor have become tourist attractions, locations such as Bathurst Channel are so remote they are barely visited. Dr. Catherine Grueber of the University of Sydney told IFLScience: “We were not even 100 percent sure there were Tasmanian devils in the south-west.”

Recently, however, a bushwalker collected five samples of devil droppings on the southwesternmost peninsula of the island and sent them to Professor Katherine Belov of the University of Sydney. Belov, a leading expert on the Tasmanian devil, had Ph.D. student Rebecca Gooley test the droppings for DNA.

Professor Kathy Belov holding a devil pup while it is still friendly enough for the purpose. University of Sydney.

“We screened the samples for 17 markers and found nine new genetic variations,” Gooley told IFLScience. “Some of these were consistent across the samples, some were found in some samples but not in others.” For most species, this would be unremarkable, but for the devils this indicates more diversity than has been seen across the rest of the island.

It is hoped that these different genetics will make the south-west devils resistant to DFTD. Grueber and Gooley told IFLScience it is too early to know if any south-west devils will be immune to the disease. Nevertheless, the discovery is big news for the struggling 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,” Belov said in a statement. She told the Sydney Morning Herald: "For years we have been calling devils clones because there's so little diversity and now we find that there is diversity out there, it's just in remote areas."

"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," Belov said. Despite financial support from the Save the Devil campaign, grants to trap devils in an area without road access is hard to come by. Thinking laterally, Gooley, Belov and Grueber are entering an award for women in science, to be chosen by popular vote in June, which would partially cover the costs of chasing the devil into some of the least explored places on the planet.

The south-west tip of Tasmania's World Heritage Area is stunning, but access is not easy, particularly if you hope to bring a devil back with you. Dr. Carolyn Hogg/University of Sydney

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