A parasitic cancer has been killing Tasmanian devils in extraordinary numbers. Since its discovery in 1996 the disease, known as Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), has wiped out around 80% of the iconic animal. DFTD is spread via bites and is restricted to the Tasmanian devil. It is one of only three known contagious cancers.

DFTD kills Tasmanian devils by the tumors interfering with the animals’ feeding, causing them to eventually starve to death.

A Tasmanian devil with DFTD. Pic: Menna Jones (Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have been struggling to find a solution to a problem that could rapidly spell the end of yet another unique endemic marsupial species. The Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian wolf or Tasmanian tiger, died out in the 20th century due to a variety of factors, including being shot by farmers and bounty hunters, competition with introduced wild dogs and a disease resembling distemper.

One effort to preserve Tasmanian devils is an ambitious breeding program involving foreign zoos, in which 20 initial devils will be sent abroad. If the program shows promise, up to 100 specimens will be sent to zoos in Europe, North America and Japan. It is hoped that the program will spread awareness of the Tasmanian devil’s plight and raise funds for the effort to save it.

From the Guardian:

There’s been a definite evolution in this program, going from not being sure what the disease was and how it was transferred, to now. It’s a long-term issue, so the security of funding is important. That’s why engaging overseas zoos is important to us.

–Howell Williams, director of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

Another aspect to the plan is to raise a significant population of disease-free devils to repopulate Tasmania while the disease eventually wipes out sick, quarantined members of the species.

Tasmania itself is opening two new state-of-the-art breeding facilities for Tasmanian devils, which will contribute to the captive population. Read more about that in the Mercury.

Further hope lies in new drug treatments, which have shown to be effective against the facial tumors associated with DTFD. The drug, named EBC-46, is derived from a plant found only in Australia’s tropical rainforests – another solid argument for the importance of their preservation.

A captive devil at Adelaide Zoological Gardens, South Australia. Pic: Roger Smith (Flickr CC)

From the Newcastle Herald:

The potential importance of this work is that, for the first time, we may be able to develop a treatment to extend the length and quality of life of diseased devils in captivity. We could use this drug on nursing devil mothers that have come in from the wild, to get them through to the stage where their healthy young are weaned and independent. This would contribute to maintaining the genetic growth of this vulnerable species.

–Stephen Pyecroft, veterinary pathologist and research team leader

Unfortunately the drug can only be used on captive Tasmanian devils and is not applicable to those in the wild.

For more information visit the Save the Tasmanian Devil website.