Contagious Cancer May Send Tasmanian Devil Into Extinction

Written by Jaymi Heimbuch

Tasmanian Devils are facing a devilish disease that could wipe them out within decades. Called the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), the problem is a contagious cancer that causes huge lesions to form on the face. It has killed more than 80% of Tasmanian devils since 1996 and there has been an 84% decrease in devil sightings across Tasmania as of February 2011. The Tasmanian devil has been listed as an endangered species.

According to Save the Tasmanian Devil, DFTD is one of only three known cancers that can spread like a contagious disease. Tasmanian devils are biters, as anyone familiar with the species quickly learns, and the disease is spread from the many bites they deliver to one another. Once infected, a devil typically won’t live longer than six months and usually die of starvation because the tumors make it so difficult to eat.

Now, researchers are finding that the cancer is evolving in an unexpected way.

Live Science reports on Yahoo News that “rather than changing their genes, a new study finds, Tasmanian devil tumors are altering on an epigenetic level meaning the basic gene sequences stay the same, but the genes that get switched on and off are different. Some of the epigenetic variants may help the cancer spread more easily or evade the immune system, said study researcher Katherine Belov, an animal geneticist at the University of Sydney.”

In essence, what researchers though were tumors that cloned themselves, they’ve found that the cancer is actually evolving. It might mean that the cancer will get more aggressive, but it might also mean that the tumors will become benign. Save the Tasmanian Devil notes that a PhD student has been studying a population of devils where the cancer is not as deadly as in other populations.

“Although DFTD has spread through this population at the same rate that it is spreading elsewhere, abundance throughout the population has not plummeted, the full age structure is still intact and tumours appear to grow slower, regress and take longer to kill the animal.”

This could mean that indeed the cancer is evolving to be less aggressive, but whether or not there is still hope for the species remains to be seen.

This post was originally published by TreeHugger.


Related Stories:

Saving Tasmanian Devils May Lead to Cancer Treatments

20 Animals You Didn’t Know Are Going Extinct

Pennsylvania Considering Endangered Status for Bats



Knut F.
Knut F4 years ago

I can only agree with many of the above comments and hope some of the Tassi devils will be treated separately and perhaps saved that way?!

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra5 years ago

Thank you TreeHugger, for Sharing this!

Katherine Wright
Katherine Wright5 years ago

Can we do human experimentation to help save these creatures? If roles were reversed humans would certainly not hesitate to do experiments on animals to save the humans.

I seriously pray that these creatures do not end up facing extinction.......

Thorn Briar
Past Member 5 years ago

Poor things

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing, hope they can make it

rene davis
irene davis5 years ago

devastating news.

Sheri D.
Sheri D5 years ago

I hope they find a cure before these animals are added to the lengthy list of Extinct Animals.

Beth M.
Beth M5 years ago

I'm sure that humans somehow caused this. Hopefully, we can find a way to save these innocent creatures before it is too late.

Heidi S.
Heidi S5 years ago

has there been a study conducted as to the cause of the rise and where it originated from?

Maree Ann Peterson

There has to be something done there must be way to get rid of these cancers I pray they find a solution, because what would tasmania be without there devils!