A new study suggests reintroducing Tasmanian devils to the mainland Australian continent could improve biodiversity by controlling the spread of red foxes and feral cats in regions where predatory dingoes have been culled.
Tasmanian devil populations were once widespread across the Australian continent, but are believed to have gone extinct on the mainland about 3,000 years ago, and this extinction was most likely a result of hungry dingoes, the University of New South Wales reported.
The practice of dingo culling to protect livestock has been changing Australia's ecological balance, causing invasive predators to drive native species towards extinction. Researchers believe the reintroduction of Tasmanian devils to forest ecosystems in South Eastern parts of New South Wales could help solve this problem.
"There are large areas where the dingo is gone and we need a predator who can suppress fox numbers," said PhD candidate Daniel Hunter from the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences. "The devil is the obvious answer. It doesn't pose as serious a risk to livestock, and it has played a major role in stopping foxes from establishing a foothold in Tasmania."
In addition to helping to restore ecological balance, the reintroduction could help ensure the Tasmanian devil's survival. The species has seen a significant population decline over the past two decades due to a severe facial tumor disease.
To make their findings, a team of researchers used computer-modeling techniques to look at the ecological impact of dingoes, Tasmanian devils and foxes and used this information to determine how the reintroduction of Tasmanian devils would impact a variety of ecosystems. The results suggested the reintroduction of Tasmanian devils would reduce fox and feral cat populations as well as the populations of some grazing animals such as wallabies.
"We suspect that they help control the fox and cat populations by directly attacking them and their young," said co-author Associate Professor Mike Letnic from UNSW. "There is very good evidence from Tasmania that cats modify their movements and numbers are lower where there are healthy devil populations."
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Biological Conservation.