Tasmanian Devil

MOSCOW - University of Idaho researchers are studying how Tasmanian devils influence ecosystems.

As a top apex predator and scavenger, and one of the few carnivores worldwide that consume bones, devils play a critical role in the Tasmanian island ecosystem by cycling essential nutrients back into the soil. These nutrients, including phosphorus and nitrogen, would otherwise remain locked in bone material for years, said Laurel Lynch, an assistant professor in the Department of Soil and Water Systems.

Lynch is among a team of international researchers funded by the National Science Foundation to study the role of Tasmanian devils in maintaining forest health and productivity. The research will reveal links between keystone scavengers and ecosystem resiliency that could have applications worldwide, Lynch said.

Although a highly transmissible cancer — the target of many unrelated studies — threatens Tasmanian devils with extinction, one population on the western coast has not yet been infected. Researchers will use this natural population gradient to determine how scavenger and predator declines alter energy flow through food webs and influence ecosystems.

“We know through population and community ecology that if you remove a keystone species, there’s a reorganization that occurs throughout the food web,” Lynch said. “What we don’t know is whether this reorganization cascades below ground and influences microbial populations and plant-available nutrients.”

When microbes have access to high-quality food sources, such as carcasses, they grow more efficiently than when they are only decomposing plant material, she said. By releasing key nutrients from carcass and bone material, devils may help plants and microorganisms be more productive. Plants may build longer-lived tissues that allow them to survive stressors such as drought, and efficient microbial communities may store more carbon underground, which helps reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

This project titled “Collaborative Research: Effects of Top Scavenger Declines — From Microbes to Ecosystems” was funded by National Science Foundation award 2054716. The total project funding is $677,575, of which 100% is the federal share.