Photo Credit: K a z o via Compfight cc
It was somewhat of a shock for me to have found out years ago that the Tasmanian Devil was in fact a bona fide living, breathing organism. Popularised and trademarked as the over-exuberant, devious Loony Tunes character, the Tassie Devil is in fact one of the many beautiful oddities that reside on our homeland, and is, now that you can only spot the Tasmanian Tiger on Cascade labels, the only surviving marsupial carnivore on the planet. On top of the many mammalian extinctions on the Australian mainland which has forced the Devil to its corner sanctuary of Tasmania, this fact is doubly disconcerting due to the disarming facial tumor that has rapidly been depleting population numbers for the last 20 years. This belligerent national icon is now very much threatened, and fighting for its life. Luckily, a consortium of people vested in the future survival of the animal is pulling out all stops to prevent its extinction.
Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), the main offender in question, was first sighted in 1996. Known to deform the face and jaws of devils with swollen red and white protrusions and even cavities that rot the animal’s molars and canines, thus preventing it from predation, the disease has killed tens of thousands in its steady march westward from its origins somewhere in the north east. Approximately 5000 devils are believed to be infected with DFTD, which has eradicated some populations by as much as 90%. It’s a particularly vicious disease as well, typically causing death six months after infection. The cause of the disease has been well supported by the Devil’s innate aggression, in particular around mating time, when malignant cells are transmitted into the opponent’s open bite wounds. Given the interdependence of all ecological systems, the dwindling numbers are having serious ramifications on the overall biodiversity of the region, as Devils kill feral cats and foxes which target other rare species such as the eastern quoll.

In 2003, the Tasmanian Government was spurred to action and created the Save The Tasmanian Devil (STTD) program to understand and then fight the disease. It was in fact found to be a parasitic cancer,  an incredibly rare form of disease created by deformed chromosomes that develop into an independent organism, capable of ingesting the nutrients in other devils’ bodies. STTD was found to be particularly devastating because the cancer cells were not producing “antigens”, little protein identifiers usually found on the rim of the cells, and therefore unidentifiable to the Devils’ usually robust immune systems. 

There are currently 3 broad avenues of research, and of hope, for tackling the tumour. The first is to develop a vaccine by recoding and activating “MHC” genes responsible for antigen creation, thus helping the Devils’ immune systems to identify and destroy the cancer. A second line of research hopes to fast-track the processes of natural selection to minimise the efficacy of the cancer itself, helping to develop more resistant generations of Devils, who nevertheless would be hosts. Lastly, populations near the famous tourist destination of Cradle Mountain have been observed to have lower mortality rates, and blood samples have been taken to discover why.

Researchers and conservationists are now locked in a race with time to develop these insights before the cancer destroys the entirety of the population. In the meantime, a “reserve” population is being maintained by captive breeding programs off the coast of Tasmania, and far from the destructive path of the cancer. Approximately 600 devils are being kept for this worst-case scenario, and all things indicate that these managed populations are thriving.

Researchers are making the modest estimation that another 20 to 30 years will be required to find a solution. In that long meantime, visit www.tassiedevil.com.au/  for more information or to make a donation to assist this crucial work.