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Has an infectious cancer doomed Tasmanian devils to extinction?

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Tasmanian Devil Facial CancerAre Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) doomed to extinction in the wild? The infectious cancer known as devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) has killed off as much as 90 percent of the world’s Tasmanian devils since it was first observed in 1996 (up from 70 percent when we last wrote about the species nine months ago). Scientists now estimate that only 2,000 of these iconic creatures remain in the wild.

DFTD is highly infectious. Once it appears, the cancer destroys the animal’s mouth, filling it with tumors that make it impossible for the animal to eat. Starvation and death follow within three to six months. Transmission is easy, because devils frequently bite one another on the mouth during mating or while fighting for territory.

No DFTD cure or vaccine exists, despite intensive research to try to stop the spread of the disease. It has apparently now mutated into 13 different strains, according to a report from Sky News.

Right now, the animals’ only hope lies in isolating disease-free captive populations. A few such sanctuaries have been built in the last couple of years. The newest of these isn’t even on the island of Tasmania: The 500-hectare Devil Ark in Barrington Tops opens this week in mainland Australia, and could eventually house up to 1,000 devils. The first 15—five males and 10 females—arrived at the new conservation site on Tuesday.

Devil Ark founder John Weigel told the Newcastle Herald that only the first stage of the project has been funded, and more money will be necessary to keep it operational and build more housing for additional devils. The first $350,000 to fund the program was allocated through the Australian government’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which also provided grants to two programs on Tasmania.

Australia’s Healesville Sanctuary, located 65 kilometers from Melbourne, already has one of the world’s the largest breeding populations of captive Tasmanian devils, with 66 healthy (DFTD-free) animals. The sanctuary had 24 devil births last year and hopes to increase its population to 120 animals by the end of 2012. The devils at the site are all kept in pens, although larger, free-range enclosures are being built.

”If we keep on breeding these guys and maintaining their genetic diversity, we will hopefully be able to release them back into Tasmania one day,” Healesville’s Annalise McLeish told The Age. ”If they do become extinct in the wild, the idea is that those in captivity can go in and get the population up and running again.”

One can hope.

Image: Tasmanian devil afflicted with devil facial tumor disease, via Wikimedia Commons


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  1. 1. heavyrunner 7:57 pm 01/18/2011

    Sounds like a metaphor for humanity, except they aren’t going to put a Humans Ark on the Moon or anywhere else.

    We can’t burn the remaining oil without going the way of the Tasmanian Devil.

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  2. 2. E-boy 2:33 am 01/19/2011

    I’ll address both these posts at once. To poster number one. Climate change is potentially dangerous and it is, unquestionably, an issue to be deeply concerned about. Having said that the general consensus among scientists is THEY DON’T KNOW what the long term consequences are. They are likely bad, to be sure, but no one knows how bad. So suggesting it will lead to our extinction is a bit premature.

    To Bonzo, labelling anything that doesn’t meet your approval propoganda is simply letting everyone else know how deeply biased you are. There are ways of quantifying bias in the press. It can be measured. SCIAM seems to ride the fence as any good journalist enterprise should. They are primarily about scientific issues though and when it comes to climate change there is simply not a great deal of contrarian evidence out there. This doesn’t mean bias on their part, but lack of evidence being mustered by people who believe what you seem to.

    If you want to have a reasoned discussion try bringing some real evidence to the table instead of name calling. While you’re at it, try looking into what the definition of acceptable evidence is in a peer reviewed journal. It’ll save you lots of time and effort weeding through political blogs looking for "Evidence".

    Link to this
  3. 3. Steve Challis 1:02 am 04/9/2012

    If the Australian Government is prepared to follow up on the start that has been made there is real hope of saving the Tasmanian Devil from extinction.
    IF the populations on Tasmania and adjacent islands become extinct, the devil facial tumor disease is likely to also become extinct and after a safe period, the devils can be reintroduced.
    However, a point that has not been mentioned in the article is that the devils used to be widespread on the mainland of Australia as well. There is evidence that the devils can compete successfully with the introduced Foxes and Cats, and potentially the reintroduction of this scavenger to the mainland could greatly benefit the severely threatened native animals.

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