Thursday, 6 November 2014

Tasmanian devils’ decline ‘driven by climate change’, new research shows

Widespread hunting and facial tumour disease not primary reason for low genetic diversity and historic population slumps


theguardian.com, Wednesday 5 November 2014 01.52 GMT

Tasmanian devils’ low genetic diversity and previous population declines were driven by climate change rather than hunting or a rampant facial tumour disease, new research has found.

A study of the largest ever genetic dataset of Tasmanian devils found that widespread bounty hunting of the animals after European settlement of Australia is not the primary reason for the species’ worryingly small gene pool. Nor is the devil tumour disease that was discovered in 1996 and has been blamed for a 90% decline in devil numbers in some places.

Researchers found that Tasmanian devils have, in fact, lived with low genetic diversity for thousands of years, having suffered two huge population drops, wiping out around 80% of animals in the past 50,000 years.

The first population slump occurred during the last ice age, around 20,000 years ago, with the next decline occurring 3,000 to 5,000 ago when the climate became much drier. Tasmanian devils were once spread across Australia but are now confined to Tasmania.

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