The Tasmanian devil, brought to the brink of extinction in recent years due to a fatal, highly contagious disease, may yet recover thanks to the discovery of an isolated population in the island state's remote southwest.
While the researchers didn't actually lay eyes on the animals, they did discover quantities of feces in a heavily forested World Heritage area. When analyzed, the stool revealed nine completely new genetic variants for the devil, a boon for conservationists attempting to help captive populations improve their chances for survival.
"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 discovery is especially timely due to the threat of devil facial tumor disease, an aggressive cancer that has decimated about 85 percent of devils since 1996. While there's recently been some good news regarding the discovery of a naturally occurring antibody that may offer some protection, the greatest promise could come from isolated, genetically-diverse populations of devils.
"The more diversity a species has, the more resilient they are and the more able they are to respond to changing environments, be it to climate change or new diseases," added Belov.
The researchers will attempt to capture some members and confirm if they're suffering from the same outbreak of disease. Regardless, the researchers plan to introduce the devils' unique genetic variants to both captive and wild populations to boost the resiliency of the species as a whole.
You can learn more about these creatures — including how the youngsters romp and interact — in the video below: