Flinders Island Aviation Services has been working in support of the Save the Tasmanian Devil program for some years, and as a result, we were lucky enough to be invited on a field trip with the Save the Tasmanian Devil team. Matt and Zack travelled to the Mount William National Park to meet up with Save the Tasmanian Devil program manager, Dr David Pemberton and Nadeen Burge from the public relations team.
Dr Pemberton or “Doozie” as he is known in the wild spent some time explaining the Tasmanian Devil’s population history since European Settlers arrived in Tasmania. It was quite interesting to learn about the different events and how the actions of settlers affected the population of the Tasmanian Devil even before the devils were struck with the devastating Devil Facial Tumour Disease.
Doozie continued to show us the impacts of the disease and discussed how the cancer is unique in the way it spreads through physical contact between animals. He explained that this cancer is one of just 5 known to man that is transmissible between animals and that they currently believe there are two separate strains of the disease.
Dr Pemberton then showed us through some of the equipment used in the field to safely trap, monitor and release devils. We then had a thrilling discussion on the usefulness of analysing the scat of captured devils and scat collected in the wild. It became very clear that Doozie loves his poop!
We were then shown some incredibly interesting data on the movements of the recently released devils captured using GPS tracking collars. The maps showed exactly how the devils hunt, explore and nest and showed just how far a devil can travel. In the two months since release, one individual travelled in excess of 700km! More interesting is that this devil covered great distances in the North East of Tasmania, and on each “lap” of his exploratory missions returned to a feed station not far from the original release site.
During our visit to the Save the Tasmanian Devil base camp at Mount William National Park, we were lucky enough to come face to face with a healthy wild-born Tasmanian Devil the team had captured for monitoring that morning. While our photo does not do the encounter justice, we were able to see up close some of the devil’s main features. Of particular interest were the devil’s paws which leave distinctive footprints in sand and mud, and the teeth they use to catch, kill and consume their prey.
We were also surprised to feel how soft their fur is, which we definitely didn’t expect from an animal captured that morning from the wild. This devil was captured purely for population and disease monitoring and was released at dusk that evening.
The Save the Tasmanian Devil program has been trialling some state of the art roadkill avoidance tools and has installed virtual fence devices that aim to alert wildlife of approaching vehicles and avoid startling them when a vehicle approaches. Doozie took us to one of the sites where a virtual fence tool has been installed and showed us how they work and how they aim to reduce roadkill in those areas. As vehicles approach, their headlights trigger a sensor that then emits a high pitch sound to alert nearby wildlife. This discourages the wildlife from approaching the road, allowing vehicles to pass safely. Dr Pemberton explained that early data showed a very significant reduction in roadkill in areas where these devices have been installed and was also happy to report that it was not just the Tasmanian Devils who have benefitted from these devices. Roadkill of all animals has been reduced in areas fitted with the virtual fencing devices.
Monitoring Tasmanian Devils in the wild is not easy! The Save the Tasmanian Devil program has developed a few sneaky ways to keep track of devils and took some time to show us how it is done! Before releasing the devils that we helped translocate from Maria Island, the team set up 6 feeding stations around the North East. The goal of the feeding station is to encourage devils to walk through a small gate, where their tags can be automatically read by sensors. Video cameras also allow the team to monitor the animals as they enter and leave the feeding area to help identify the animals and monitor their condition. A few of these stations even record the weight of the animal as it enters the feed station, providing valuable health data for the animals. These feed stations not only record the translocated devils but also attract wild devils which help the team monitor the total population in each area. The University of Tasmania, and the Save the Tasmanian Devil program also tag each wild devil captured for monitoring, allowing these feed stations to monitor those devils as well.
As a final treat, we were taken to a recently discovered Tasmanian Devil maternity den. Young devils are kept in these dens during their childhood to protect them and their mothers early in their lives. This den was discovered with the aid of the GPS collars fitted to the recently released devils. It was known that by watching the location of the devils on maps it would be easy to identify dens, however, the team found it very difficult as the devils were continuously moving, and were showing a few different sites they liked to stop. The secret was the discovery that at certain locations the temperature recorded by the GPS tracker rose from the ambient temperature of 0-10degrees to over 30 degrees celsius at some sites, indicating the devil was in a warm enclosed space. A surprising result of this discovery was that in order to reach those temperatures, multiple devils must have been sharing the same den, which was previously unknown!
Zack and I would like to thank the Save the Tasmanian Devil program for inviting us on this field trip. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and we must say, we learnt a lot about the devils in the process. It was interesting to learn about the effects of a wide range of events on the devil population and learn about the recovery of the devils and the battle against the Devil Facial Tumour Disease.
Flinders Island Aviation Services would also like to thank the Save the Tasmanian Devil program for allowing us to assist with the devil translocation projects, and we wish the program success in the future. If you would like to support this project, details on how to assist can be found on the program website http://www.tassiedevil.com.au
Photos used in this post have been supplied by The Save the Tasmanian Devil program.