The Tasmanian devil, that iconic marsupial predator of the Australian state of Tasmania, may soon meet its end. A surprising one. Once common throughout the continent, it is believed that devils became relegated to Tasmania sometime after the introduction of the dingo to Australia by Austronesian traders 2,000-3,500 years ago. Now foxes have been intentionally and foolishly brought into Tasmania which is dealing a huge blow to the devil population. However, something else may extinguish the Tasmanian devil before the foxes ever get to it…
An extremely rare (some call it completely new) form of cancer is spreading alarmingly quickly across Tasmania, inflicting Tasmanian devils with rapidly proliferating facial tumors. The end result is death by starvation. The really bizarre part of this is that this is an infectious cancer, probably passed on as Tasmanian devils scavenge the bodies of others. This was determined when it was discovered that the disorganization of the cancerous cells’ chromosomes in multiple individuals all had pretty much identical character, and that a unique marker present in one of the devil’s normal cells was absent in its cancerous cells. This is definitely NOT normal for cancer. And extremely scary. It’s not one of those cancers that arises spontaneously in one individual and stays in that individual; it’s not even something passed genetically from generation to generation. It’s passed ambiently, spreads quickly, and kills in a matter of months. In ten years, it’s killed anywhere between 20% and 50% of all Tasmanian devils living on the island, with about 60% of the island affected. High density populations have a reported 100% mortality rate within 12-18 months. This has elevated its conservation status from “lower risk/least concern” in 1996 to in 2006 being at risk of extinction in the “medium term”.
There are a number of projects being conducted by the University of Tasmania in effort to discover more about the disease/stop it. It’s all pretty expensive, so donations are welcomed. Go to http://www.tassiedevil.com.au/help.html to find out more.
(photo by Menna Jones)