John McConnico/AP
A Tasmanian devil growls at the
Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark.

Cancer Threatens Tasmanian Devil

December 27, 2008 11:59 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Experts say that the animals, beloved in Australia, are in danger due to a rare cancer that has already killed about half of them and threatens to eradicate the entire species.

Iconic “Devils” in Trouble

According to experts, the cancer called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) has already killed about 50 percent of the country’s Tasmanian devils. The Australian government reports that, since 1996, when the first case of DFTD was reported, devil numbers have fallen from 150,000 to something between 20,000 and 50,000. Experts predict that they could disappear completely from the wild in about 20 years.

Scientists are still learning about the disease, but they suspect that it is transmitted when an infected animal bites another—a major problem for the aggressive creatures, which bite often. About six months after infection, the animal starts to develop large tumors on the face and neck and becomes unable to eat or drink, eventually dying of starvation and dehydration.

“The real worry is we know of no case where [the disease] has not been fatal,” in the wild, said Hamish McCallum, a professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania’s School of Zoology, to ABC News.

McCallum, however, says that not all hope is lost in protecting the animals. “I actually do remain optimistic,” said McCallum to ABC News, saying that various protection techniques such as removing them from the wild, or surrounding them with fences could save them from extinction. “While everyone has risks, my hope is that one of them will come through.”

Related Topics: Bee populations dying

Bees are another animal that is under threat, due to a mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, which originated in North America and has been spreading across Western Europe. The disease causes bee populations to abandon their hives and leads to mass die offs, and has led to a devastating decline in the world’s bee population. The European Parliament recently approved measures to create special “recovery zones” where bees will be provided with pesticide-free, diverse habitats, in order to protect them.

Reference: Tasmanian devil

The iconic animals, the inspiration for the Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes” character Taz, are a major tourist attraction on the Australian island of Tasmania. The small, white and black, pointy-eared creatures are the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials, and they gained their menacing moniker from European settlers in Tasmania due to the wailing noises that they make during the night. They also feature large heads, long whiskers, ears that become red when they are stressed or excited due to increased blood flow, and strong jaws that are capable of biting creatures up to 4 times their weight. The aggressive animals are prone to fighting, to determine pecking order, and often injure each other when fighting over mates. Their Latin scientific name, Sarcophilus harisii, means Harris’ meat lover, after a man named Harris.

To learn more about the Tasmanian devil, and to join in on efforts to save them, visit the Web site of the Save the Tasmanian devil campaign, a joint initiative of the Tasmanian Government and the University of Tasmania.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines