Sympathy For The Tasmanian Devil

Please allow me to introduce the plight of the Tasmanian devil.

The Tasmanian Devil is the worlds’ largest carnivorous marsupial. Related to such unique creatures as the kangaroo, platypus, echidna, and the opossum, wild populations of the Tasmanian Devil can only be found off the coast of Australia on the island of Tasmania. For those of you who have never seen a real Tasmanian devil before, they look nothing like the Looney Toons character Taz. Wild Tasmanian devils are actually black in color and walks on four legs, not in a tornado. Tasmanian devil populations are also on the path to extinction due to Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), a fatal infectious cancer.

The first case of Devil Facial Tumour Disease was identified in 1996 and is believed to originate from a single female Tasmanian Devil. Since 1996, DFTD has reduced Tasmanian Devil populations by up to 80%. DFTD causes giant tumors to grown onto the face of the infected Tasmanian Devil, which eventually leads to death by either starvation (since the tumors eventually get so large they can no longer eat) or the tumors metastasize to other organs. DFTD is transmitted through the behavior of biting, which is a common behavior among Tasmanian Devils who tend to be aggressive.

The exact transmission of DFTD is unclear but a new study published in “The Journal of Animal Ecology” found that Tasmanian Devils with less bite marks are MORE likely to develop DFTD.  This implies that dominant individuals who deliver bites may be acquiring the disease that way. This is different than the assumption that the disease was transmitted from the bite of an infected individual.  The study also found the Tasmanian Devil populations with lower bite rates are less impacted by the disease.

Unless Tasmanian Devils go through a behavior makeover, wild Tasmanian Devils may become extinct in the near future. One hope is that DFTD will evolve to become more benign (DFTD usually kills within 6 months), but there is no way to predict how the cancer will evolve. Another option for trying to preserve wild Tasmanian Devil would be creating a vaccine, but that’s a stretch. How this will affect the eco systems is undetermined.


 Tasmanian Devil via Shutterstock

by Maddie Perlman-Gabel

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