This is an interesting article about scientists setting up an “insurance population” of Tasmanian devils on an island located just off of Tasmania. They released 15 healthy devils onto the island of Maria (which has never housed Tasmanian devils before, but is supposedly a good habitat for them) in an attempt to raise a cancer-free population. Besides being threatened, the devils are succumbing to cancerous facial tumors at an alarming rate. The most pressing problem is that the cancer is parasitic and contagious, easily spreading between devils. The cancer is most likely spread during fights between Tasmanian devils because the animals frequently bite each other in the face, thereby transmitting the cancerous cells into their own bloodstream. Scientists set up this backup population in the event the mainland population is wiped out (taking the disease with it) and then healthy devils from Maria Island can be reintroduced to the mainland. Researchers are working on the possibility of a vaccine, but it is a tricky situation because devils would most likely need multiple vaccinations. Capturing, organizing, tagging, and vaccinating wild Tasmanian devils would be a immense undertaking. Furthermore, the cancer cells has been shown to be evolving and have the ability to camouflage themselves so that healthy devil bodies don’t know they should reject the cells. However, there is a promising population on the mainland that shows signs of resisting the cancer, only 20% of devils in that area have died.
This is a very pressing conservation issue. The devils die a few months after contracting the cancer. However, a few months is plenty of time for multiple fights and the probability of spreading the tumor cells. I think it’s a great idea to quarantine a population of healthy animals on an island to try to save the species. This seems to be a rather unique conservation case though. It is not feasible to just start putting endangered animals on islands everywhere and letting them figure it out, although it may seem like a good idea at first. Most likely the new animals will disrupt an already delicate ecosystem and cause problems of another kind for some other endangered species. The situation with the Tasmanian devils is an emergency case. I imagine getting clearance to release a non-native species onto an island required a good deal of paperwork. I liked this article mostly because it’s a good example of researchers going above and beyond to fight for a species survival.