Consorting with the devil

Tasmanian devils have a big problem in the form of devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). The population of the already endangered species has plummeted. This heart-breaking photo says it all.

[Update: To protect the squeamish, I’ve put the confronting photo on the next page. Click ‘Continue reading’ to read more.]

The results of devil facial tumour disease

The results of devil facial tumour disease; photo by Menna Jones, Wikimedia Commons

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program describes the disease thus:

DFTD is a fatal condition in Tasmanian devils, characterised by cancers around the head and neck.

DFTD appears to be a new disease that is restricted to Tasmanian devils. No affected animals were detected among the 2000-plus devils trapped by six biologists between 1964 and 1995.

DFTD is extremely unusual: it is one of only four known naturally occurring transmissible cancers [update: you can read about the one in dogs here]. It is transmitted like a contagious disease between individuals through biting and other close contact.

Animals usually die within a few months of the cancer becoming visible. Tasmanian devils with facial tumours find it difficult to eat. Death results from starvation and the breakdown of body functions as a result of the cancer.

In diseased areas, nearly all sexually mature Tasmanian devils (older than two years of age) become infected and succumb to the disease. Juveniles as young as one year old can also be infected. This is resulting in populations with a very young age-structure in which females have only one breeding event, whereas they would normally have three.

Dr Menna Jones of the University of Tasmania is running a citizen science project in March out of Arthur River in north-west Tasmania to study devils there. The disease hasn’t quite got to that corner of the island yet, as you can see from the map. Arthur River is a small township on the river to the south of the top and left-most road on the map. The project has been going a couple of years – you can read about and listen to the results here.

The devastating fires that have just burnt about 11,000 hectares of World Heritage rainforest won’t have helped either. The study sites at Arthur River are north of the fire region, however.

Yours truly is participating, and I expect to have some interesting photos and stories to tell after I get back. Stay tuned!

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