Study on brain shrinkage shifts to Tassie Devils

February 14, 2012

The quality of captive breeding enclosures and time spent in them may be crucial to the success of marsupials once released back to the wild, new research suggests.

Victoria University Dr Patrick Guay measured the brains of Stripe-faced Dunnarts – small mouse-sized Australian marsupials – bred in captivity over several generations and found those kept in an enriched environment showed little or no decrease in size.

This is significant as captive-bred animals typically have smaller brains than wild relatives, resulting in poorer skills for nesting, avoiding predators, finding food and rearing young.

“This study on Dunnarts shows the importance of enriched enclosures and, if possible, short-term captivity for successful breeding and returning of endangered animals to the wild,” Dr Guay said. “Hopefully, this will help improve the success of programs for many of our endangered or critically endangered marsupials, including the Tassie Devil”.

The study will now be extended to focus specifically on Tasmanian Devils, which are the focus of a national breeding program at Healesville Sanctuary and other institutions to save them from extinction.

Dr Guay’s new study with Zoos Victoria, the Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program will measure the skulls of deceased devils from zoos and wildlife parks across Australia to see whether captive-bred devils retain wild brain sizes.

“Reduced brain size may be used as a warning sign,” Dr Guay said. “If we find current captive breeding strategies have led to reduced brain size we need to do something about it before captive bred threatened species, including devils, become domesticated zoo animals that can never be released back into the wild.”

He said the aim of an enriched captive breeding environment was to provide animals with features and activities to stimulate natural behaviours.

Scientists have long thought these factors important to maximise reintroduction success, but Dr Guay’s study on Dunnarts with Zoos Victoria and The University of Melbourne’s Department of Zoology showed the level of brain reduction may be a major reason why.

The Dunnart study will be published in Zoo Biology.

Explore further: Conserving biodiversity or plundering genetic diversity? What is captive breeding doing to fish populations?

Related Stories

Researchers urge more prominent role for zoos

March 17, 2011

Of around seven land vertebrate species whose survival in the wild is threatened one is also kept in captivity. These and other data on the protection of species in zoos and aquaria have now been revealed by scientists at ...

Hybrid possum gives endangered species a chance

May 26, 2011

Australian researchers have successfully bred two genetically distinct Mountain Pygmy-possums, playing a major role in preventing the endangered population in the Victorian Alpine region from further decline.

China to release six pandas into wild

December 21, 2011

Six captive-bred pandas will be freed into an enclosed forest in southwestern China next year in the first mass release of the highly endangered animals, the official Xinhua news agency said Wednesday.

Recommended for you

Secrets of a heat-loving microbe unlocked

September 4, 2015

Scientists studying how a heat-loving microbe transfers its DNA from one generation to the next say it could further our understanding of an extraordinary superbug.

Plants also suffer from stress

September 4, 2015

High salt in soil dramatically stresses plant biology and reduces the growth and yield of crops. Now researchers have found specific proteins that allow plants to grow better under salt stress, and may help breed future generations ...

Ancient walnut forests linked to languages, trade routes

September 4, 2015

If Persian walnut trees could talk, they might tell of the numerous traders who moved along the Silk Roads' thousands of miles over thousands of years, carrying among their valuable merchandise the seeds that would turn into ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.