The Tasmanian Devil: Disease and Decline

Carolyn Im

Tasmanian Devil, Australia, Scientific Student

I recently visited Australia and was amazed at the diversity and uniqueness present in the wildlife. Among the more famous Australian animals are the kangaroo and the koala. However, another less recognizable animal caught my eye: the Tasmanian Devil.

Made popular by Looney Tunes with the animated cartoon character Taz, the Tasmanian Devil is known to have an irritable temperament prone to maniacal outbursts. It is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, preying upon smaller organisms and carrion. Tasmanian Devils typically live life in solitude and are nocturnal, depending on their keen senses of sight and smell in order to survive. Although these animals were once prevalent all throughout Australia, the population of marsupials now is indigenous only in Tasmania, an island state to the south of the mainland of Australia.

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So why have the numbers of these animals lessened throughout the years? For one, in earlier times the Tasmanian devils were believed to be pests killing livestock, and efforts were made to rid the land of these presumed pests. These beliefs were later dispelled, and in 1941, the Devils were named as a protected species, which helped increase their numbers.

Despite this growth, the development of an illness among the Tasmanian Devils has decimated the population and killed thousands upon thousands of these animals. The devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) is a rare contagious cancer that causes large tumors to form on the Tasmanian Devil’s mouth and head, eventually starving the animal to death. DFTD is spread between individuals by means of biting and close contact with other Tasmanian Devils. Animals afflicted with DFTD die within a few months of contracting the cancer due to starvation. In areas where DFTD has been observed, populations of Tasmanian Devils have declined by up to 97%. As a result, the species is now considered endangered.

Recently, researchers have identified a second kind of transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils, known as Devil Facial Tumor 2 (DFT2). The tumors that arise from this cancer are largely indistinguishable from the tumors caused by DFTD, however they are genetically distinct. The discovery of DFT2 may “suggest that transmissible cancers may arise more frequently in nature than previously considered.”

These quirky animals were part of what made my visit to Australia so neat, and I hope solutions to DFTD and DFT2 will be found soon in order to help preserve this population of unique marsupials in the land down under.

 

Edited by: Daryn Dever