04 December 2007

Devils' Hope

Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)

The Tasmanian Devil, the largest surviving marsupial carnivore, has been dealing with a nasty disease for the past decade. Referred to as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), this rare cancer is infectious, meaning it can be passed between individuals. Devils are often violent with each other, and it is believed that the cancer cells are transmitted during such bouts, either during fights over food, or while mating.

Devils contracting the disease develop large cancerous tumours around their face, mouth, and eyes, preventing them from eating or functioning, and usually die within six months. So far, 59% of the island state of Tasmania has been affected by the disease, with a 53% decline in devil populations over the past ten years. Up until recently, no devil had ever survived or shown an immunity to DFTD.

Now, a devil from unaffected western Tasmania, has shown resistance to the disease. After being injected with tumour cells, the three-year-old devil known as Cedric, was able to develop antibodies. Researchers hope that the disease-free western population may be genetically distinct, and that this distinctness may help fight DFTD, either through the development of a vaccine, or through selective breeding, to increase the numbers of devils able to resist the disease.

However, it's not the only hope. Disease free devils have been captured and a captive breeding program is underway, to ensure that disease free populations remain, whatever happens to the wild devil populations. Up to 150 devils will be in captive breeding programs by early next year, both in Tasmania, and in zoos and parks on mainland Australia.

Help the Devils.

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