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A Dangerous Threat to the Tasmanian Devil - Devil Facial Tumour Disease

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 5

In Danger of Extinction Through Devil Facial Tumour Disease

The Tasmanian devil is an icon of Tasmania, an island state of Australia. It has been chosen as the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Tasmanian devil(63003)

The Tasmanian devil is a squat, ungainly looking marsupial the size of a small but powerful dog. The forequarters and head are larger and stronger than the hindquarters, especially in the males. The front legs are longer than the back making the animal look very out of proportion. Devils have black fur with some having white markings on the hindquarters and a white bar across the chest.

For its size, it has the one of the most powerful bites of any mammal. It is renowned for its frenetic screeching and howling, especially when feeding. Several devils will converge on a carcase and wrangle fiercely over the spoils. The devil will gorge on its prey, consuming up to 40% of its own weight in around half an hour.

Some ten or fifteen years ago, the Tasmanian devil had made a good recovery from a very low population. It became fully protected by law in 1941. It was quite common and its future appeared secure. Its main threats had been man, either through poisoning, shooting and trapping or through destruction of habitat. Other threats included chemicals used in the forestry industry, competition from quolls and foxes, and feral cats and dogs.

But in the late 1990s, the Tassie devil was beset by a new problem – DFTD or devil facial tumour disease. By May 2008, they had been listed as endangered by the Threatened Species Protection Act 1995.

First seen in 1996, devil facial tumour disease is a debilitating cancerous sarcoma which is incurable, causing death three to five months after onset. The disease affects roughly 50% of wild devils. Ulcerated tumours develop around the jaws and head and the animal generally starves to death over a few months.

Tasmanian devil with facial tumours

DFTD is a transmissible cancer, passed on from one animal to another. Devils have very low levels of genetic diversity and are more prone to infections of this type. They also have a chromosomal mutation unique among carnivores.

Devils occupying the west coast area and far north-west are the only animals currently free of the disease. In the north-east where signs of the disease were first noticed, average spotlight sightings have dropped roughly 95% from 1993 to 2005.

In 2006, DFTD was gazetted under the Animal Health Act as a List B notifiable disease.

The Government of Tasmania is undertaking programmes designed to reduce the impact of DFTD. As there is no cure, the authorities are attempting to remove sick animals and quarantine healthy ones. Field monitoring involves trapping devils within a defined area and working out the number affected. Areas are revisited regularly to monitor changes in numbers and/or any recovery of local populations. Diseased individuals are removed in the hope that this will help suppress the disease and allow healthy devils to mature and breed. Part of the strategy is to develop a group of healthy devils in captivity and to keep them isolated from the disease. The cost of preserving the Tasmanian devil has been estimated at $11 million.



Sep 15, 2011 11:03pm
Whoa, that $11 million price tag -- that's a bite. Excellent work following up with this subject -- you did well in presentation (the sitution is apparently far worse than I thought). I know these things are temperamental,but they're jsut about as cute as baby bears, and i'd hate to see them gone.

The more serious issue is the fact this is TRANSMISSIBLE CANCER!!! How long before we have, like AIDS, a trans-species version of it making the leap to we humanoids? I hope there's a vaccine on the horizon. Thanks for doing this!

Oh, and it looks as if you've cornered the market on the Tasmanian Devil on IB -- I guess I'd better quickly bust out 1,000 words about the Warner Bros. cartoon Tasmanian Devil so you don't have a total monopoly on it. You know, the cyclonic carnivore that was Bugs Bunny's nemesis in many a 'toon?
Sep 15, 2011 11:11pm
Take this as written in 8 point - until I went into adwords looking for keywords, I didn't know there was a tassie devil in a cartoon. I'm ashamed of my ignorance! I've been unable to upload photos for a week. I nearly have withdrawal symptoms.
Sep 16, 2011 12:37am
I think this string of terms might prove lucrative (over time) simply because it is such an esoteric subject (I have a medical piece on "vitrectomy" that each click pretty much equals all others combined). Oh, yeah, beyond the all important fiscal crud associated w/ keywords that people seem obsessed about -- good writing!!
Sep 16, 2011 10:13pm
I had read a news story on this a few years ago but wondered what was going on with this since then. It's sad that these animals are suffering from this terrible disease. I hope that there is a cure one of these days.
Sep 17, 2011 9:59am
Thanks for the comments. They seem nasty little beasts but no-one would wish this dreadful disease on them.
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