The Devil is Dying Mysterious Facial Cancer Threatens Symbol of Tasmania

The Tasmanian Devil, an icon of the island after which it is named, is on the verge of extinction as a contagious facial cancer decimates the animals. It's an epidemic of a kind never seen before and scientists are desperately trying to create a vaccine.

By Rafaela von Bredow

A Tasmanian Devil: a jaw almost as strong as leopard

A Tasmanian Devil: a jaw almost as strong as leopard

The birth of Tasmanian devils, which are furless and smaller than crabs when they are born, usually comes 21 days after conception.

Four of the miniature devils fit in the pouch of a female, where they spend about 21 weeks growing, firmly clinging to the mother's teats. The young ride out the cool winter of the southern hemisphere in these cozy surroundings, first venturing outdoors at the beginning of spring.

Strict conformity to the rhythm of the seasons is important for Tasmanian Devils, the largest carnivores among marsupials. And yet biologists are starting to observe individual animals that are no longer sticking to the normal order of things for their species, which has ensured their survival on the Australian island for many thousands of years. They are mating too early in their lives, and their offspring are born in the wrong season.

The cause is a disease that has turned the lives of Tasmanian Devils upside down. A mysterious form of cancer has afflicted the animals. Since the discovery of the first sick animal 11 years ago, the strange tumors have grown rampant in and killed more than 75,000 of the jet-black carrion eaters, or about half of all "Tassie Devils," as the raccoon-sized creatures are affectionately called by Tasmanians.

The cancer is fatal for the animals. "Once they’ve got a lump, it’s a one way trip," says Menna Jones, an expert on Tasmanian Devils at the University of Tasmania. "It is extremely unusual to have this extreme degree of death," explains Nick Mooney, a wildlife biologist with the Tasmanian government.

Extinction soon?

What has scientists and species protection experts especially worried is that the tumors are contagious. Like greedy parasites, the diseased cells can jump from one animal to another, where they grow and eventually dissolve its bones, muscles and tendons like an acid bath.

Graphic: Cases of DFTD cancer in Tasmanian devils

Graphic: Cases of DFTD cancer in Tasmanian devils

There has never been a type of cancer like this and it is spreading like the plague. The disease reached the Freycinet Peninsula in 2001, and within 18 months all the adult Tasmanian Devils there died. The disease is already present on almost two-thirds of the island, which is about the size of the German state of Bavaria. In the northeast, where the disease was first detected, it has already wiped out 90 percent of the marsupial carnivores.

It is now clear that the Tasmanian Devil, an icon and tourist attraction for the island, will become extinct unless the cancer can be stopped. "That would be unforgivable," says ecologist Mooney.

Residents of the island still feel a deep sense of guilt about the Tasmanian Tiger, a larger relative of the Devil, which farmers mercilessly hunted, poisoned and finally wiped out. The last Tasmanian Tiger died in a zoo in 1936.

As a result, the Tasmanian Devil, as the largest remaining marsupial carnivore, acquired the status of a symbol of the Australian island's precious fauna, which was urgently in need of protection. Indeed, it is fascinating how the Tasmanian Devil fills a similar niche as the hyena in Africa. Even the way the two animals lollop is similar.

The Devils are believed to have acquired their name from the first Europeans who settled the island, formerly known as Van Diemen's Land, in the early 19th century. It is not difficult to imagine how they arrived at the name. Even the nighttime sounds the animal makes are enough to make an unprepared greenhorn's blood curdle. The Devil's pitiful whining, choked roar, screeching and rumbling sounds are probably part of one of the most ghastly sounding vocal repertoires the animal world has ever produced.

The fact that the animals devour any corpses they can get hold of, even those of their own young -- skin, hair and bones included -- doesn't exactly make them endearing. They are even fond of chewing on skulls. Finally, their appearance makes these carrion-eaters seem somehow related to the antichrist: the deeply black fur, the pointed red ears that become bright red when the animal is agitated, and the gaping mouth with its 42 teeth, which the Tasmanian Devil can plunge into the flesh of its victims with a strength that approaches that of a leopard. Relative to its body weight, the Devil has the strongest bite of all mammals. To make matters worse, it exudes a stench that would put a skunk to shame.


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