Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Devils in Peril

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

Devils in peril

We all remember the excitable Looney Tunes character Taz, whose whirlwinds of energy seemed unstoppable. Taz’s real-life counterparts however are now in serious trouble on the conservation front, as a facial cancer is spreading through the already endangered population.
Tasmanian devils are a carnivorous marsupial, found only on the Australian island of Tasmania.  They play an important economic role for people on the island being a key tourist attraction and are featured on many local logos and signs.  The devils are normally calm, solitary animals but have gained an aggressive reputation due to their blood curdling screeches and unforgiving nature when they congregate in groups around food or for mating.  Unfortunately, it is during these social events that the fatal cancer is passed on.
Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a cancer that is spread by physical contact with those that are infected.  Such infectious cells are very rarely seen and the nature of this cancer means that it is spreading like wild fire though the population. The cancer starts as lesions on the face but then develops into cancerous lumps around the mouth, which can spread to the rest of the body.  These lumps prevent the devils from being able to eat, resulting in them eventually starving to death.
Data suggests that 80% of the population has already disappeared and that 83% of adults in the remaining population are infected.  It is thought that the speed with which the cancer has taken effect is due to low genetic diversity within the Tasmanian devil population.  There seems to be no significant natural resistance to the disease, which has resulted in drastic methods in an attempt to control it.
Culling has been one technique used in an attempt to remove infected individuals.  The method has been used effectively in preventing the spread of foot and mouth in cattle, but there is less evidence of it being successful in wild animals.  
During trials, individuals were caught and either removed from the population or released back into the wild if they were in a healthy condition.  Unfortunately, results showed that trial culls did not reduce the prevalence of DFTD and so other methods are now being investigated. This shows that in any conservation effort there needs to be a degree of adaptability in solving challenging problems.
The focus of scientists now is to try and develop a vaccine to immunise the population.  However, it is a race against time with other threats to the vulnerable devils being traffic accidents and the introduced red fox, which is proving a strong competitor for food and space.  Due to these problems, captive breeding programmes have also been set up to conserve the animals should the wild population be damaged.  Despite all of these obstacles, it can be hoped that the hard work of conservationists pays off and the devils will be in Tasmania long into the future.
By Lizy Tinsley

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