New Population of Tasmanian Devils Could Supply Much-Needed Genetic Diversity

We might be stuck with these things for a long time.

by Kastalia Medrano
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Tasmanian devils are one of those deceptive creatures that occasionally looks cute in photos but should really make your bowels clench with terror. They are supernaturally strong for their size, prone to massive tumors of the face, and zookeepers keep them at bay with their preferred snack of blood popsicles. When they eat, the crunching of bones can literally be heard for miles. Anyway, the good news is that there are more of them than we thought.

University of Sydney researcher Rebecca Gooley, Ph.D., recently discovered a suspicious pile of Devil poo in a remote region of Tasmania, which led to her identifying a previously unknown population of Devils. They introduce nine new genetic markers to the Devil gene pool, which is apparently fantastic news for the species. It’s not clear whether this new discovery will be enough to stave off extinction on its own, nor whether the newly discovered Devil population is suffering from the signature tumor disease, but it’s certainly an enormous boon to a species starved for genetic variation.

“For us this is massive,” Sydney University geneticist Kathy Belov told the Sydney Morning Herald. “For years we have been calling devils clones because there’s so little diversity and now we find that there is diversity out there, it’s just in remote areas.”

The isolated and waning Devil population is actually unlike problems humans will face when we eventually colonize Mars; it’s that old cliche about how many people would it take to repopulate the Earth. Genetic diversity is crucial to a healthy population; there’s a reason people joke about inbred offspring being less-than-ideal specimens.

According to Popular Mechanics, Mars would need an initial population of 40,000 people in order to maintain 100 percent of our genetic variation; the healthy minimum would have to be at least 10,000. Any lower, and certain traits begin to disappear, as has been happening with the Devils.

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