Roughly 3,000 years ago, Tasmanian devils disappeared from the wilds of mainland Australia—instead only surviving on Tasmania Island, the landmass from which they got their common name. But now for the first time in millennia, a mama devil living outside of captivity has given birth to a litter of joeys, in this case, seven thumbnail-sized, hairless infants, reports Gemma Conroy for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). They were born in Barrington Tops, a nature preserve north of Sydney.
The mother is part of a group of 26 Tasmanian devils re-introduced to the preserve in late 2020 by conservation group Aussie Ark, and the hope is that they will one day blossom into a self-sustaining population of the feisty marsupials.
“We have been working tirelessly for the better part of ten years to return devils to the wild of mainland Australia with the hope that they would establish a sustainable population,” says Tim Faulkner, president of Aussie Ark, in a statement. “Once they were back in the wild, it was up to them, which was nerve-wracking. We had been watching them from afar until it was time to step in and confirm the birth of our first wild joeys.”
But it’s worth noting that the preserve isn’t completely wild. Though there are no food and water dishes for the animals, the 1,000-acre plot is enclosed to protect its inhabitants from dingoes—wild canines thought to have arrived in Australia roughly 3,500 years ago—which are one of the devils’ main predators on the mainland and one of the causes of their extirpation.
"Saying they're back in the wild is not completely genuine,” Andrew Flies, a wildlife immunologist at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania, tells ABC, “but it's nice to see that they are breeding in a semi-natural environment." Flies also questioned whether expensive efforts to reintroduce and shepherd along a population of Tasmanian devils in Australia is the best use of the limited funds available for conservation projects, and whether the devils will ever be able to survive without the protection of fences.
But the significance of this fledgling population in Australia goes beyond bringing back a native species that went locally extinct, it’s also an insurance policy for the species as a whole. The ferocious devils’ main population in Tasmania has been reduced by roughly 90 percent by a contagious facial cancer, reports Livia Albeck-Ripka for the New York Times. Despite efforts to develop vaccines and find ways to help the species battle back against the ailment, there are currently no effective treatments for animals with the disease.
Conservationists also hope that if a disease-free population of these tenacious predators, which can reach the size of a small dog, takes hold in Australia that they might help beat back the scourge of feral cats and introduced foxes that threaten many of the continent’s native species.
The seven infant Tasmanian devils are now roughly a month old and in good health, Reuters reports, and Aussie Ark predicts that this year could see the total number of newborns to around 20. That may seem like a drop in the bucket, but with just around 25,000 animals left in the wild in Tasmania a disease-free population in Australia could, unfortunately, become more significant over time.