To many, the Tasmanian devil is a just a rowdy, screeching Looney Tunes character. But to those in Australia, the devil is a national symbol and was once a common sight in its wildlife landscape. However, now this beloved creature is being severely threatened by the strange, contagious tasmanian devil cancer.
Tasmanian devil cancer is fast spreading and extremely deadly− it's already killed 84 percent of the Tasmanian devil population. To date, there are only around 35,000 of the devils left in the wild.
The gravity of the situation can be seen in scientists’ most recent plan to ensure the species’ survival: 15 cancer-free Tasmanian devils were released onto nearby Maria Island. The scientists hope to create a healthy population of devils in case the cancer wipes out the remaining ones in Tasmania. In addition to the Maria devils, 500 healthy devils have also been placed in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries. The devils on Maria Island will safeguard the species from becoming too domesticated to survive in the wild, which could happen if they were solely bred in zoos.
These extreme measures are necessary due to the unique nature of Tasmanian devil cancer. Officially called the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), this fast-moving cancer is contagious. It can be spread from devil to devil contact, unlike most cancers, which cannot be spread through contact. A contagious Tasmanian devil cancer is especially problematic for Tasmanian devils; the devils are violent animals that greet each other by fighting and biting each other’s faces. The biting is the reason that the cancer has spread so quickly. It also explains why DFTD usually presents first as facial tumors before spreading to the rest of the body.
Dr. Elizabeth Murchison of the University of Cambridge was one of the first to discover the unusual nature of Tasmanian devil cancer. As she explained in her TEDx talk, Murchison used DNA from one devil, Jonas, to investigate its contagiousness: “Being a geneticist I’m always interested in looking at DNA and mutations…When I looked at the sequence of the DNA and compared the sequence of Jonas’s tumor to that of the rest of his body, I discovered that they had a completely different genetic profile…What this told us was that Jonas’s tumor did not arise from cells on his own body.”
Since her talk, Murchison has led the effort to sequence hundreds of genomes from devils’ tumors. She hopes that researching the facial tumors further will lead to a vaccine for DFTD. Still, until a vaccine is developed, the Tasmanian government is putting its efforts into establishing an insurance population on Maria Island.
Conservationists are hoping for a breakthrough as quickly as possible, so the devils can serve as more than fodder for cartoons, but as integral members of the country's ecosystem.