Are Tasmanian Devils Doomed?

Video highlights from The Wild Life Of Tim Faulkner

Tasmanian devils are on the cliff of extinction, but help could be close at hand.

Tasmanian devils are aggressive, carnivorous marsupials found right here in Australia. About two feet long, they weigh up to 26 pounds and live about five years, if they’re lucky, which very few are these days.

Since the mid-1990s, a bizarre infectious cancer called devil facial tumor disease has swept through the devil population, reducing it from 140,000 to as few as 20,000.

When devils scuffle and bite one another during the mating season, tumour cells from infected animals enter the open wounds of their sparring partners. There the malignant cells grow into massive facial tumors. Infected animals die in about six months, sometimes from starvation - the tumors make it hard for them to eat.

A tumor is growing in this devil’s mouth, near its upper right canine [Image: Heath Holden]

When the disease was first discovered, horrified researchers feared it would take Tasmania’s key native predator over the cliff into extinction, with ripple effects through the ecosystem. During its lifetime a single devil may devour hundreds of brush tail possums, for instance, as well as large quantities of carrion.

But these days, researchers are betting the devils will make it through. Disease-free reserve populations have been established, including one on Maria Island, the home of those young pups tussling in the sun. Meanwhile, field trials of a new vaccine against the cancer began in late September.

And most encouraging of all, there are preliminary signs that the devils themselves are adapting to the disease. They may be evolving the ability to beat it.

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