Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Are any populations ‘safe’? Unexpected reproductive decline in a population of Tasmanian devils free of devil facial tumour disease

K. A. Farquharson A 1 , R. M. Gooley A 1 , S. Fox B C , S. J. Huxtable B , K. Belov A , D. Pemberton B , C. J. Hogg A 1 and C. E. Grueber A D E 1
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.

B Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Hobart, Tas. 7001, Australia.

C Toledo Zoo, 2605 Broadway, Toledo, OH 43609, USA.

D San Diego Zoo Global, San Diego, CA 92112, USA.

E Corresponding author. Email: catherine.grueber@sydney.edu.au

Wildlife Research 45(1) 31-37 https://doi.org/10.1071/WR16234
Submitted: 23 January 2017  Accepted: 3 October 2017   Published: 20 March 2018

Abstract

Context: Conservation 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.

Aims: Our 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.

Methods: We analysed 8 years of field-trapping data, including demographics and reproductive rates, across 2004–16, from the largest known DFTD-free remnant population at Woolnorth, Tasmania.

Key results: Surprisingly, we found a dramatic and statistically significant decline in female breeding rate when comparing data collected from 2004–2009 with data from 2014–2016. 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.

Conclusions: The 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.

Implications: Our 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.

Additional keywords: demography, fecundity, inbreeding, population monitoring, reproduction, translocation.


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