Tasmanian Devil on Sick Leave, Gets Island Vacation


Photo Credit: Arts Tasmania

The real-life Tasmanian devil could not look more different than its slobbering, whirling, rabbit-terrorizing animated counterpart, even if it tried. And, while the iconic Loony Tunes fireball is safely ensconced in Toon Town, the fox-size Australian marsupial is being threatened with extinction by a mysterious and contagious cancer that spawns misshapen facial tumors.

"I think there's a real risk of extinction within 20 years across the whole of Tasmania," says Hamish McCallum, a professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania, in an interview with Discovery News.Since the discovery of the disease in the mid '90s in the island state of Tasmania, 90 percent of the devils have perished. Scientists expect the contagion to spread to all devil populations in Tasmania—the only place where the animals exist outside of captivity—in as little as five years.

One possible solution: Quarantine 30 healthy devils on a former 19th century prison island off the coast of Tasmania. The proposed move is not uncontroversial, however, as scientists cannot anticipate how the carnivorous devils will take to the uninhabited island—home to several endangered species of birds—and what impact they'll have on its ecology. (Here's hoping that Taz's legendary appetite is mostly exaggerated.)

While McCallum doesn't wish to argue over "whether a devil is worth more than a forty-spotted pardalote," he says that the risk the devils will pose to endangered species would be minimal.

Another half-dozen islands could also become devil quarantine colonies. Advocates of the plan hope that, as populations of contaminated devils are wiped out on the mainland, that the disease will die out, as well. Healthy devils can then be safely reintroduced to the mainland.

To contribute to devil rescue efforts, visit the University of Tasmania Foundation Web site. :: Discovery News

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