Cartoonist Robert McKimson pegged parts of the Tasmanian Devil’s character pretty much square on when he created Taz for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes series. Although the cartoon creature walked on two legs instead of four and acted like a snarky teenager, he shared a voracious appetite and scrappy behavior with the carnivorous Australian marsupial.
Another thing he shared was the threat of extinction. Taz first appeared in his own movie in 1954 but pretty much disappeared a decade later. Then in the 1990s he scored a three-season show on TV.
Maybe the real Tasmanian Devil will also score a comeback. The fierce little guy was declared an endangered species in 2009, after a decade of decline because of a facial cancer spreading through the population.
I first saw one at Cleland Wildlife Park in South Australia and was surprised an animal with such a wild reputation was so small. They were once common in Australia, but the wild population is now found only in the island state of Tasmania. Scientists believe they were wiped out on the mainland by dingoes brought over by settlers.
Now there’s new hope for the devils, in spite of an inexplicable strain of cancer that has wiped out 80% of the population on Tasmania. Unlike other cancers, this one is contagious. Hoping to find a cure, University of Tasmania researchers injected two related devils with the cancer. One of them developed tumors, but the other one, Cedric, proved immune to several of the cancer strains. The difference between the two half brothers was the genetic contribution of parents from different areas.
While scientists from Australia and the U.S. are collaborating on gene sequencing to save the Tasmanian Devil, they are making discoveries that may offer insight into human cancers. Dr. Vanessa Hayes of the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia says, “We are opening the doors for other cancer researchers, who we will hope will benefit significantly from this research.”
Photo by Cathryn Wellner