There's new hope for the Tasmanian devil, the endangered marsupial that's been decimated by a deadly disease. Scientists have found a hidden colony that could add much-needed diversity to the animal's gene pool.
Tests on samples of devil poo found in a remote part of Tasmania revealed nine new genetic variants, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
"For us this is massive," Sydney University geneticist Kathy Belov told the newspaper. "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."
That diversity could prove key to the survival of the species, which is being wiped out by devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), a cancer that develops around the face and neck and kills the animal within three to five months.
While cancer is not usually passed between animals, this case is different and the lack of genetic diversity in the population may be the reason.
"When a healthy devil is infected with DFTD from another animal, the infected devil’s immune system assumes that the new cancer cells are the same as its own cells and fails to reject them," the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program explained on its website.
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Belov told ABC Australia that new genetic variants could add diversity to the animals in captivity, which were being carefully bred to act as an insurance population to protect the devils from extinction.
The Tasmanian devil was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List after the population dropped from between 130,000 and 150,000 in the 1990s to an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 mature animals today.
Although small, devils are known for their powerful jaws and sour disposition. When fighting or eating, they make growling and snarling noises not unlike the cartoon character that bears their name.
San Diego Zoo, which has been working with the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, said the area where the samples were found could only be reached by a long hike, helicopter or chartered boat.
Although scientists asked for funding to study the devil population and were turned down, a collaborator was able to collect the poo samples while on a hike through the region.
Since the animals themselves haven't been seen yet, researchers aren't sure if this hidden population has been affected by the cancer.
Belov hopes scientists will eventually travel to the area and see for themselves.
"We want to capture all the variants that are out there and make sure that we maintain them in the captive population," Belov said. "And then we can release them into the wild."