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21 Jun, 2021 12:24

‘Catastrophic impact’: Tasmanian devils ‘wipe out’ large penguin colony on Australian island as animal introduction goes wrong

‘Catastrophic impact’: Tasmanian devils ‘wipe out’ large penguin colony on Australian island as animal introduction goes wrong

Australia’s endangered Tasmanian devils have eliminated a local colony of penguins and decimated other bird fauna after they were brought to Maria Island in a bid to save them from extinction due to animal cancer.

According to The Australian newspaper, the devils were introduced to the tiny island off Tasmania’s east coast in 2012 as an “insurance population” due to the fears that a raging facial tumor disease would make the raccoon-sized creatures disappear completely.

The arrival of the world’s largest surviving carnivorous marsupials took a horrible toll on the island’s bird colony, as the initial group of 28 devils on Maria grew to 100 in just a few years.

BirdLife Tasmania conservation group said that in 2010-2011 there were around 3,000 breeding pairs of little penguins, the Earth’s smallest species of penguins that are native to Australia and New Zealand, living across the national-park island.

Park officials “went out 18 months back and couldn’t find a single penguin breeding in any of the previously known penguin colonies on the island,” the group’s convener Eric Whoehler said.

“So, the devils have wiped out the penguins. It’s 100%,” Whoehler said, adding that Maria’s Cape Barren geese and native hens have also suffered from the carnivores.

Whoehler later told the media that there is always “a catastrophic impact” on one or more bird species when mammals are brought to oceanic islands, and losing thousands of pairs of penguins on Maria is “a major blow.”

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According to a 2020 research paper published in the Biological Conservation journal, Tasmanian devils had completely destroyed the colony of short-tailed shearwater seabirds on Maria in just four years after their introduction.  

“Because of their larger size and ability to dig, devils had greater impacts on nesting shearwaters than either cats or possums,” the paper said.

Science magazine reported last year that, since the 1990s, the disease had reduced the population of devils from around 150,000 to about 25,000 in Tasmania. While the animals remain endangered, a recent study published in the magazine found that the infection rate has begun to decline, giving hope for recovery of the population in their natural habitat. 

Woehler said that, given the improvement of the situation in Tasmania, it is “rather difficult to justify” the devils’ continuing presence on Maria. He suggested that penguins are likely to return once the predators leave.

The Australian cited a Tasmanian government spokesperson saying that they were continually monitoring the devil population and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program will “evolve in line with new knowledge in science and emerging priorities.”

“Maria Island remains an important part of the broader devil program to help restore and maintain an enduring and resilient wild devil population in Tasmania,” the spokesperson said.

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