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Devils Dancing with Death

Looney Tunes Taz is a suitable portrayal of the little known creature, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisi). With seething, snarling, insatiable lunatic like behaviour early European settlers dubbed the small marsupial a “devil”. Unfortunately, the devil is now classified as endangered.

Once abundant throughout Australia, Tasmanian devils are now indigenous only in Tasmania. Biologists speculate that their extinction on the mainland is due to the introduction of dingoes from Asia. Their fight for survival was not helped by the fact farmers wrongly believed the devils were taking livestock, and so tried to eradicate the species in the late 1800s. Luckily in 1941, the government made devils a protected species, and their numbers had been growing steadily since.

Catastrophically, however, a devastating illness discovered in the mid- 1990s has since killed tens of thousands of Tasmanian devils. Named devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), this infectious condition is a rare contagious cancer that causes large lumps to form around the devil’s mouth and head, making it hard for it to eat. The devils eventually starve to death. DFTD has decimated the population reducing it from 140,000 to as few as 20,000 devils left. Populations locally have declined by up to 97%.

Amazingly, new research is now suggesting that these robust devils may be able to fight back against DFTD, with a little help from evolution. Two small sections of the devil genome appear to be changing very fast and look to contain cancer-fighting genes. Such a response has been induced in captivity through immunisation with killed cancer cells, but nobody thought they would see similar responses occur naturally in the wild populations.

Despite the devils fight back, it is still necessary for humans to lend a helping hand. The local government has put a lot of effort into creating suitable reserves to isolate disease free devils in order to create increasing, healthy populations. The case of the devils offers hope that despite all the things nature has to deal with, it is still resilient and may be harder to break than scientists worried. Scientists are now working to characterise the specific genes in more detail. There could well be things to learn that could help tackle cancer in humans. This highlights the importance of maintaining our natural world, the more we discover about it, the more we can discover about ourselves.

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