Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Devil Is in the DNA

Credit: Menna Jones

Credit: Menna Jones

By Anna Brüniche-Olsen & Jeremy J. Austin

DNA analysis reveals that Tasmanian devils survived a major population decline thousands of years ago, leaving them with low genetic diversity to withstand devil facial tumour disease.

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When Europeans first arrived in Tasmania they encountered a strange creature. It was black with white markings, the size of a dog, and had an impressive set of teeth. This loud and rowdy scavenger, mainly active at night fighting over carcasses, puzzled them. They named it the “Tasmanian devil”. Two hundred years later we know a lot more about devil biology, but they stand at the brink of extinction and have become a symbol for the conservation of biodiversity worldwide.

Along with the Tasmanian tiger (or thylacine), devils were once widespread on mainland Australia. The first people in Australia depicted Tasmanian devils in their rock art, while fossils of devils have been found in caves across the mainland, from the south-west of Western Australia and across the Nullarbor to Victoria and New South Wales.

But around 3000 years ago the devils disappeared from mainland Australia. Recent analyses suggest that increases in Aboriginal populations during the past 10,000 years – along with a changing climate and the introduction of the dingo – have contributed to their mainland extinction.

After Europeans settled in Tasmania in 1803, devils suffered at the hands of the early farmers. They noticed that their chickens and sheep disappeared – and blamed the Tasmanian devils. To cope with the threat to their livestock, the Van Diemen’s Land Co. enforced an...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.