Scientists Fight Contagious Face-Eating Tasmanian Devil Cancer


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The wild shrieks and grunts made by Tasmanian devils as they fed on their prey terrified early English settlers in the 19th century, an experience that inspired the small carnivores' common name. Today, however, it's the devils that are being tormented—by an epidemic so horrific it seems otherworldly.

It's a parasitic cancer called Devil facial tumor disease, and since it first appeared in 1996 it has been responsible for a 70 percent decline in the Tasmanian devil population.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Originally thought to be caused by a virus, scientists now know that the disease is actually the result of an extremely rare contagious cancer. Once infected, lesions appear on the animal's skin, eventually becoming tumors. The tumors typically occur around the mouth and face, making it difficult to eat and eventually resulting in starvation.

At the present rate of decline, scientists expect the species to be extinct within as little as 20 years, if a cure is not discovered.

Fortunately, that cure may not be too far off. Researchers in Australia have announced that, after completing a map of the Tasmanian devil genome, a breakthrough may be on its way. Elizabeth Murchison, lead researcher for the project, explained:

This sequence is invaluable and comes at a crucial time...by comparing our draft sequence with samples taken from many hundreds of devils suffering from this cancer, we can begin to look at the spread of the disease...by identifying geographical routes and barriers in its transmission...this knowledge could ultimately shape the ongoing conservation efforts in Tasmania.

Murchison stressed that this map was simply the first step in the fight against the disease.

Still, for Australia's Tasmanian devils, it is the first good news since the death of Cedric—a devil thought to be immune to the disease—in September.

Read more about Tasmanian devils:
Tasmanian Devil on Sick Leave, Gets Island Vacation
Cancers Threaten Wild Animal Populations

Tags: Animals | Conservation | Endangered Species