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BioPark Zoo introduces 2 Tasmanian devils

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Schweppes, one of two 15-month-old Tasmanian devils, explores his new habitat at the ABQ BioPark Zoo on Thursday. His brother, Cola, preferred to remain hidden away in the enclosure during the public introduction. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Schweppes was brisk and bubbly, while Cola wasn’t quite as effervescent.

No doubt it was just the way the two 15-month-old Tasmanian devil brothers were each reacting to their new environment.

The pair were introduced to the outside portion of their new habitat and to the public at the ABQ BioPark Zoo Thursday, after arriving a week or so ago from Tasmania as part of the Tasmanian Devil Ambassador Program. The program is overseen by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

As Schweppes roamed his enclosure, hopping up on rock ledges and extending his snout into the air to smell his surroundings and the curious people staring at him, brother Cola preferred the shaded comfort of a hollowed log, from which animal handlers were unable to coax him.

“The brothers are from a litter of four, and have two sisters at home in Tasmania who will be part of the insurance population for breeding,” said Olivia Barnard, wildlife officer with DPIPWE, who accompanied the devils from Australia. “These guys are part of the Ambassador Program, and at the moment are just for educational purposes and for people to enjoy and see what Tasmanian devils are like.”

New ABQ BioPark Zoo resident, Tasmanian devil Schweppes, peeks out from a hollow log Thursday. His brother, Cola, stayed inside the log, even as Schweppes ventured out to explore (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Although Schweppes and Cola are not currently part of a breeding program, “there is a likelihood we will bring females over in the next year or two, so there’s a possibility they will be part of a breeding program later,” Barnard said.

Prior to their arrival at the BioPark Zoo, the resident devil, Poppi, had been retired, said Erin Flynn, the zoo’s mammal curator. “Earlier this year she kind of indicated to us that she didn’t want to come out with people anymore, so she’s retired behind the scenes and living life to its fullest, and we’re enjoying watching her live out her retirement,” Flynn said.

In the wild, devils live on average 5-6 years, and in captivity 6-7 years. Poppi, at 8½ years old, is considered “extremely geriatric,” Flynn said.

Devils in the wild are also nocturnal and eat mostly carrion, but will kill smaller animals like wallaby and possum, said Bernard. In captivity, however, devils are often active during the day, as they adjust to daylight feeding schedules.

There are an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Tasmanian devils remaining in the wild on the Australian island of Tasmania. The animals are considered endangered. “Their population has dropped by 80 percent in the last 10 years, decimated by Devil Facial Tumor Disease,” a cancer that was first observed in devil colonies in the mid 1990s, and which has diminished the genetic diversity of the species, Bernard said.

As part of their normal social eating and mating behaviors, devils bite and snap at one another, at which time the cancer is transmitted from one animal to another, Bernard said. The resulting facial tumors continue to grow, interfering with the animal’s ability to eat and ultimately causing them to starve to death, she said.

Researchers are making slow progress developing a vaccine, but have successfully been growing a disease free devil colony on nearby Maria Island.

The ABQ BioPark Zoo is one of only for zoos in the United States to have Tasmanian devils.

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