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Found: A Hidden Population of Tasmanian Devils

This previously unknown group of devils could add much needed genetic diversity to the ailing species.

A devil at rest. (Photo: Wayne McLean/CC BY 2.0)

Tasmanian devils aren’t doing so hot. There’s only one known place in all of Tasmania where wild devils live without developing facial tumor disease, a cancer that can be transmitted from devil to devil and is characterized by gross growths on the devil’s face. There’s a group that lives in isolation and cancer-free, but part of the problem is that the devils’ gene pool is not very diverse, which limits its ability to fight the disease.

That’s why it’s a big deal that scientists at the University of Sydney have found a previously unknown population of Tasmanian devils, living in isolation. These devils have been hanging out in an isolated area in the southwest of Tasmania, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

The scientists have sequenced the DNA found in the droppings of the newly discovered devils, and those samples shows that this population has new genetic variations not known in the populations. There’s so little diversity in those groups of devils that they’re basically clones, one scientist told the Herald.

This new population may still be infected with the cancer — the researchers haven’t been able to determine that yet. But if they can introduce some of these genetic variants into the captive population, it could make the species stronger and its survival that much more likely.

Bonus finds: A 5,000-year-old brewery

Every day, we highlight one newly found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.