Tasmanian Devils Fighting for Life

A healthy Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, is shown in this photo from Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries. Researchers estimate the wild population has fallen from 140,000 in the 1990s to 80,000 due to Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), an illness that creates grotesque tumors on the animals' snouts that lead to starvation within a year.

A cancer that causes facial tumors on Australia's Tasmanian devil has brought the carnivorous marsupial to the brink of extinction, a leading researcher has said. Local populations of the animal have already been savaged by the mysterious disease, which results in malignant facial tumors. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of Tasmanian devils have been killed by Devil Facial Tumour Disease.

Hamish McCallum, professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania's school of zoology, said the disease, which usually results in death six months after the appearance of the first lesions, could lead to the extinction of the species within a decade.

Scientists recently met in Australia's island state of Tasmania to find ways of tackling the disease. The diseased animals develop facial tumours, which can grow so large that they prevent feeding. Scientists fear the devils - which are a symbol for Tasmania - could become extinct if action is not taken.

Tasmania's other famous carnivore, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, became extinct in the 1930s.

Cited story.


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What's really cool (though really sad) is that this is an infectious cancer--probably transmitted from one devil to the next by directly passing on tumor cells when biting each other. The tumor cells have a unique karyotype and are now behaving essentially as a separate parasitic species.

I wonder whether there is an exotic virus from introduced wildlife involved here as the source of the cancer. We won't stop wrecking the natural environment until there is nothing left but weed species.

By biosparite (not verified) on 22 Feb 2007 #permalink

"The tumor cells have a unique karyotype and are now behaving essentially as a separate parasitic species."

The DFTD is an interesting case study in how the same entity (tumor) can change levels of selection - somatic selection (for cancer virulence) became individual selection once it left the originating host.

DFTD went from being a part of a complex metazoan (Tasmanian devil) to a new, simpler (protist-like degenerate) metazoan species.