Disease-plagued Tasmanian devils now endangered

05/26/2009

Devilyawn

A healthy Tasmanian devil at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in Taranna, Tasmania.
Copyright (c) 2006 Wendee Holtcamp

A devastating new disease struck Tasmanian devils around 1996, emerging from nowhere it seemed, but striking with a vengeful force. In just over a decade, and at an increasing pace in the past few years, Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) – a contagious and inevitably fatal cancer – has killed 70% of the pre-disease population level, and in some spots, up to 90% of local populations. It threatens to drive the marsupial carnivores to extinction in the wild, a species already found only on Australia’s island state of Tasmania. The Australian government officially declared them endangered species in May 2009, up a notch from the vulnerable status given them previously, and giving them additional protection. The government has already devoted over AUS $10 million to research and conservation efforts. 

I visited Tasmania in 2006 and saw several of these enigmatic creatures in captivity, and met with biologists who were all working at a frantic pace on research to discover ways to prevent the species from going extinct. Scientists are studying the disease itself, whether any devils show signs of immunity – none have so far - and identifying the best way to ensure they survive into the future, even if it means the animals go extinct in the wild and get reintroduced from disease-free captive bred animals. Conservationists have captured disease-free animals and placed them in zoos across Australia in what’s been called Project Ark. Some of the first “pinkies” have been born in captivity – the tiny, underdeveloped, hairless young that marsupials give birth to, and which develop more fully in mama’s pouch. They hope to get up to 1,500 devils to fully preserve the species genetic diversity. Right now, there are only 145 captive individuals. The animals cannot be seen anywhere outside of Australia, even in zoos (with the single exception of Denmark's Copenhagen Zoo), and with the disease outbreak they’re unlikely to send any outside the country in case the disease may infect other species. Research so far suggests the disease only affects devils, but better safe than sorry.

Not so long ago, Tasmanian devils were extremely common – akin to North American raccoons or oppossums – wandering the roadways foraging for recently killed animals. The cat-sized mammals were once feared for their ferocious growl and bizarre behavior of fighting and biting one another, but they’re no threat to humans. Nevertheless, just like the story of innumerable carnivores around the world, they were killed indiscriminately, especially by farmers, which led to their decline (they'd gone extinct on the mainland years before, probably from indirect competition from dingoes). After protection in 1941 by the Tasmanian legislature, they recovered. That is, until this new disease emerged, never seen before 1996. It creates huge facial tumors in affected devils, and inevitably leads to the animal’s death. The devils apparently have no immunity to the cancer. Normally, when a new disease emerges, individuals with some natural immunity survive while others die – natural selection at work. But not a single devil has been known to ever survive the disease, so far. And none tested have shown any signs of immunity.

After visiting Tasmania in 2006, the devils endeared me to their cause. I wrote about their plight for Scientific American Magazine (Sympathy for the Devil), and National Wildlife Magazine (Tasmania’s Devil of a Problem). People always ask if they really spin like the Warner Bros Taz character. The funny thing is, most people answer no. But I swear, when I saw them at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in the town of Taranna of the Tasman peninsula (near the famous Port Arthur prison where the worst of the worst Australian criminals were kept, historically, by the way), the devils didn’t spin per se but I did watch one of them turn this way and that and growl for no apparent reason. It looked like a dog chasing its tail, but it kept switching directions! I found it rather endearing. Not only do their ears turn bright red when they feel enraged or grumpy or excited, they’re known to bite one another during feeding and during mating time and the older ones are just covered with scar tissue all over their faces. That unfortunate habit also seems to spread the disease rapidly. The University of Tasmania oversees a Save the Tasmanian Devil Foundation donation campaign for the beleaguered critters, which goes to conservation and research.

Read the "Devil Diary" to go behind the scenes of the world's premier Tasmanian Devil sanctuary.


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