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Tasmanian Devil Endangered

Rare disease threatens to wipe out Australian icon

By Laura Leigh Davidson | May 28 , 2008
Tasmanian Devils play fighting at Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park, near Taranna, Tasmania, Australia. (Photo: ©Dave Walsh /
Tasmanian Devils play fighting at Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park, near Taranna, Tasmania, Australia. (Photo: ©Dave Walsh /

You may know the Tasmanian devil as a cartoon character who speaks a crazy language of slobbery grunts and eats anything in sight. But the Looney Tunes creature is based on a real animal.

The true Tasmanian devil is a rare marsupial that lives only on the Australian island state of Tasmania. The spunky doglike animal is rapidly disappearing.

The devil was declared an endangered species last week. It is being wiped out by a rare cancer called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD).

The Tasmanian state government estimates that the number of devils has dropped from around 150,000 in the mid-1990s to between 20,000 and 50,000 at the end of 2006.

"The change in the devil's status reflects the real possibility that this iconic species could face extinction in the wild within 20 years," Tasmania's Primary Industries Minister, David Llewellyn, said in a statement.

Uncommon Cancer

DFTD is one of only two known cancers that are contagious. It spreads like a cold or flu from animal to animal. The disease is passed when one devil bites another. As the name implies, the disease occurs only in Tasmanian devils and cannot be passed to humans.

When the meat-eating marsupial is infected with DFTD, large tumors develop around its mouth and neck. These growths make it impossible for the devil to eat. Many ultimately die from starvation within six months of being infected.

The cause of DFTD is currently unknown. Some experts think that carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals used as flame-retardants could be at fault.

Hamish McCallum, professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania, thinks some devils could be swallowing the chemicals directly.

"You've got to remember that devils are scavengers [they search through garbage for food]," McCallum told National Geographic News.

"Throughout Tasmania . . . people maintain outdoor dumps. If somebody chucked a wallaby carcass on top of say, a foam mattress, then . . . the devils might actually consume quite large quantities of that foam."

Warwick Brennan, a spokesperson for the Save the Tasmanian Devil project, told National Geographic this theory would require more analysis.

"The preliminary examination from our guys was that there weren't significant differences [of the levels of some compounds] between the diseased and non-diseased animals," Brennan said in an interview earlier this year.

Map of Australia
(Image: ©Jim McMahon)

The disease has not yet appeared in the devil population that lives in the northwest region of Tasmania.

Conservationists have captured some of the healthy devils and sent them to a new home on the mainland of Australia. They hope these DFTD-free marsupials can be used to start a captive-breeding population. Once there are more disease-free devils, they can then repopulate the areas of Tasmania where the species is being wiped out.

But trapping and managing the 500 breeding devils is a massive task. As they start to multiply, there could be more than 1,500 in captivity at one time.

"We're hoping that this [endangered listing] will lead to wider recognition of just how serious the threat remains . . . and bring further assistance in," Brennan said.

What Happens If the Devils Disappear?

Tasmanian devils play an important role in keeping the state's ecosystem in balance. They keep the population of other predators, such as foxes and feral (wild) cats, in check.

Ray Nias, head of World Wildlife Federation-Australia's conservation program, says all Tasmanian wildlife will suffer if the devil becomes extinct.

"If the devils go and the foxes and cats increase, it would be all over for a good dozen or more species of mammals—many of which are unique to Tasmania."


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