Clock Ticking Toward Tasmanian Devil Extinction

A contagious mouth cancer is killing off Tasmanian devils at such alarming rates that the species could be extinct in just five years if drastic steps are not taken, according to biologists.

This blight is truly a nasty, nasty killer. Once it infects a Tasmanian devil, the cancer destroys its mouth, filling it with tumors that make it impossible for the animal to eat. Starvation and death rapidly follow. Transmission is easy, since devils frequently bite each other on the mouths during mating or while fighting for territory.

The disease first appeared about 10 years ago, and since then it has devastated as much as 90% of devil populations in certain areas. The devils have no immunity to the cancer, and new research shows why: the tumors share a gene with the Tasmanian devil, making it impossible for the devils' immune system to reject or attack it.

The researchers -- whose work is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- see just one way to save the Tasmanian devil: cull or isolate the animals infected with the cancer and keep them away from the remaining population.

What's ironic, though, is that doing so would leave the devils with a very small population, and it is believed that this cancer got its start when the devil population was already at a declined level. From a report in The Age:

Dr Belov, of the University of Sydney, said this phenomenon probably developed when devil numbers fell. Low genetic diversity meant there was no natural barrier to prevent the disease spreading. "If we don't do anything this species will go extinct," Dr Belov said. "It doesn't look like there's any way the devils could survive without active human intervention."

Earlier entry: Could saving Tasmanian devils endanger other species?

Extra link: Save the Tasmanian Devil campaign

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