The Tasmanian devil – despite its name – once roamed the mainland of Australia. Returning the devil to the mainland may not only help its threatened status but could help control invasive predators such as feral cats and foxes.
But now we’ve explored the idea from a palaeontological view. We looked at the fossil record of mainland devils, in a paper published online and in print soon in the journal Biological Conservation.
The fossil record helps us better understand how the devils co-existed on mainland Australia with other wildlife. It also helps us see how these iconic animals may possibly interact with small and medium-sized animals if reintroduced to the mainland in the future.
Back in the wild
Ecologists have reintroduced several apex predators to environments where they were once driven to localised extinction. This has helped restore past ecosystems by providing a clearer ecological balance.
One of the best-known examples is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the United States, to check the overgrazing and destruction of habitat by elk.
By reintroducing Tasmanian devils into mainland Australia, can we possibly help restore ecological systems that support devils along with small to medium-sized native mammals?
Native and exotic predators
But these iconic Australian predators were still able to survive in Tasmania. The island was created 10,000 years ago by rising sea levels, well before the arrival of dingoes on mainland Australia.
Dingoes have now been eradicated across much of mainland Australia, particularly within the seclusion zone of the dingo fence in the southeast of the continent. The 5,400km fence stretches eastwards across South Australia into New South Wales and to southeast Queensland.
Exotic predators such as foxes and cats now thrive across many parts of Australia, and have devastating impacts on small to medium-sized Australian mammals.
But until recently they have not been able to gain a foothold in Tasmania. Many ecologists believe the presence of the devil has prevented these other animals making their destructive mark on the ecology of Tasmania.
Sadly the situation is changing as a result of the deadly devil facial tumour disease, an infectious cancer that has destroyed many populations of Tasmanian devils. Estimates range up to 90% of some population groups now wiped out.
As a result, feral cats are now moving into former devil habitats and hunting native species on Tasmania.
A fossil window to the past
So what does the fossil record tell us about the past life of the Tasmanian devil in mainland Australia?
The Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, in southeast Australia, provides an extraordinary archaeological and palaeoecological record of Ice Age Australia.
In the past, skeletal remains buried within the landscape were commonly fossilised. Evidence of small animals that dug burrows (such as burrowing bettongs) and the predators that pursued them in their burrows, are exceptionally well preserved.
Our excavations reveal how devils and other small-to-medium sized mammals and reptiles interacted over more than 20,000 years in this area. Even during the peak arid phase, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, it seems that devils and their prey successfully co-existed.
The fossil record shows that the range of habitats occupied by devils in the past was far more diverse than today, with populations being found across environments from the central arid core to the northern tropics.
This suggests that devils today should, theoretically, be able to reoccupy a similarly extensive range of habitats.
Better the devil you know
Some ecologists suggest dingoes should be reintroduced into Australian habitats in order to reduce the impact of cats and foxes on native mammals.
One problem is that dingoes also prey on livestock. This is the reason the dingo fence was constructed during the 1880s.
But devils are not active predators of cattle and sheep. So reintroducing a predator that has a much longer evolutionary history with other native mammals in this country would likely receive far less opposition from pastoralists.
A reintroduction of devils back to the mainland may be a new approach to consider for controlling the relentless, destructive march of exotic predators and restore crucial elements of Australia’s biodiversity.
It still needs to be demonstrated that devils can suppress the activities of cats and foxes on the mainland, as they seem to have done in Tasmania. Experiments with devils in a range of different settings would help to establish this.
A new research approach involving palaeontologists, conservation biologists and policy makers may help us understand how we can restore biodiversity function in Australia.
Michael Westaway receives funding from the Australian Research Council. This research was also funded by a joint Simon Fraser University and Griffith University collaboratve grant.
Gilbert Price has previously received funding from the Australian Research Council for data that has been included in this article.