Wildlife experts in Australia are planning to reintroduce the Tasmanian devil to the mainland in order to prevent the further spread of local feral cats and red foxes in areas where wild dingoes have already been culled.

According to scientists, the carnivorous marsupial known as the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) was once part of the local biodiversity of Australian mainland. The species became extinct in the area, however, around 3,000 years in the past possibly because of overhunting in the part of dingoes, the Tasmanian devil's natural predator.

Extensive culling of dingoes to protect livestock has shifted the balance of the ecology, allowing invasive predators from other places to harass the native animals. This action has also added to the already-worsening extinction crisis in Australia and sparked discussions regarding the possibility of reintroducing the Tasmanian devils to the mainland.

A team of ecologists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) have studied the potential impact of bringing back of Tasmanian devils to the forest ecosystems located in the south eastern areas of New South Wales.

UNSW researcher Daniel Hunter said that because of the absence of dingoes in large areas of the mainland, a replacement predator has to be introduced to curb the continued spread of fox populations.

He explained that the Tasmanian devil makes an ideal choice as it is not a direct threat to local livestock. The species has also played a vital role in preventing foxes from gaining a disruptive foothold in the ecosystem of Tasmania.

In a study featured in the journal Biological Conservation, Hunter and his fellow researchers examined the potential advantages of making the Tasmanian devil the apex predator in the mainland to replace the dingo. They discovered that the marsupial has the ability to restore key functions in the ecosystems that was once performed by the dingo.

The reintroduction of the Tasmanian devil to the Australian continent could also help ensure the survivability of the species in the long run as it has seen a significant decline in population in the past 20 years because of a disease known as devil facial tumor.

The UNSW researchers made use of scientific models and earlier studies to predict how a wide range of ecosystems would react to the reintroduction of the devils.

The models used mapped out possible scenarios that showed the Tasmanian devil was able to coexist with different populations of other predators. The results ranged from being completely eradicated at first to becoming reduced and even becoming abundant.

The findings suggest that by bringing back the Tasmanian devil to the mainland, not only would the number of feral cats and foxes be reduced, but it will also curb the population of other animals such as wallabies, grazing herbivores that consume vegetation which could help smaller animals to hide from their predators.

Photo: SJ Bennett | Flickr 

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