ContextConservation management relies on baseline demographic data of natural populations. For Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii), threatened in the wild by two fatal and transmissible cancers (devil facial tumour disease DFTD: DFT1 and DFT2), understanding the characteristics of healthy populations is crucial for developing adaptive management strategies to bolster populations in the wild.AimsOur analysis aims to evaluate contemporary reproductive rates for wild, DFTD-free Tasmanian devil populations, and to provide a baseline with which to compare the outcome of current translocation activities.MethodsWe analysed 8 years of field-trapping data, including demographics and reproductive rates, across 200416, from the largest known DFTD-free remnant population at Woolnorth, Tasmania.Key resultsSurprisingly, we found a dramatic and statistically significant decline in female breeding rate when comparing data collected from 20042009 with data from 20142016. Unfortunately we do not have any data from the intermediate years. This decline in breeding rate was accompanied by a subtle but statistically significant decline in litter sizes. These changes were not associated with a change in body condition over the same period. Furthermore, we could not attribute the decline in breeding to a change in population size or sex ratio. Preliminary analysis suggested a possible association between annual breeding rate and coarse measures of environmental variation (Southern Oscillation Index), but any mechanistic associations are yet to be determined.ConclusionsThe decline in breeding rates was unexpected, so further monitoring and investigation into potential environmental and/or biological reasons for the decline in breeding rate are recommended before the arrival of DFTD at Woolnorth.ImplicationsOur results provide valuable data to support the conservation management of Tasmanian devils in their native range. They also highlight the importance of continued monitoring of safe populations, in the face of significant threats elsewhere.
Wildlife Research – CSIRO Publishing
Published: Mar 20, 2018
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