On July 21st 2015, ScienceDaily published some wonderful news for our largest carnivorous marsupial, the endangered Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). In their post Producing a vaccine to save the Tasmanian devil, the University of Southampton confirmed that funding (in the amount of £183,759 or 284,991 USD) from The Leverhulme Trust will finance a three-year research project.
Nicolás Boullosa on flickr / CC-by-2.0This research project will be led by Dr. Hannah Siddle, a biological scientist working to save Tasmanian devils from a horrible form of cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).
DFTD first appeared in 1996 and rapidly spread throughout Tasmanian devils populations. It is an extremely unusual type of cancer because it is contagious. It is spread by biting or other physical contact.
Sadly, where DFTD has been observed in Tasmanian devils, their populations have crashed. On the website Save the Tasmanian Devil, it mentioned a decline of "up to 97 percent."
Paw Mane Fin's own Vickie Sam Paget wrote in her April 9th, 2014 piece:
"The Tasmanian Devil faces extinction in the wild within 25 years because of Devil facial tumor disease, a disease that has already wiped out 85 per cent of Tasmanian Devils since 1996."
The mortality rate in Tasmanian devils with DFTD is close to 100 percent. And it's an excruciating way for an animal to die.
A Contagious Form of Cancer? Can Other Species Catch It?
Another inhabitant of Tasmania, the eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus) is related to the Tasmanian devil and sometimes even its prey.
I wondered if this highly contagious cancer could be transmitted to other species (including us). And apparently, every source I found stated that it is a disease "restricted to Tasmanian devils."
But it is extremely rare for any cancer to be contagious. So I looked up what the American Cancer Society wrote in their Is Cancer Contagious? post. Here is the gist:
Certain viruses, bacteria, and parasites can "play a role in the development of certain types of cancer."
But, for humans (and most other species that we know of) cancer does not spread like a contagious disease.
How DFTD Affects Tasmanian Devils
When Tasmanian devils contract DFTD, small tumors or lesions occur both inside and around their mouths. These become larger and spread to the face and neck. Sometimes the cancer spreads to other areas of their bodies.
By (Photo: Menna Jones) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia CommonsSince their mouths are painfully affected by DFTD, Tasmanian devils find it difficult to eat. The cancer also wrecks havoc with their bodily functions. Eventually, these poor animals weaken and can no longer compete for food.
Tasmanian devils with DFTD usually die from starvation and the effects of cancer within three to five months.
I found conflicting statements during my research. Most sources state that DFTD affects male and female Tasmanian devils equally. But some sources may have misinterpreted the data. According to the Save the Tasmanian Devil website FAQ page:
"Adults appear to be most affected by the disease – males the first affected, then females."
I'm guessing that males bite other males when they compete for a female mate or for food. (This spreads DFTD from one Tasmanian devil to another). Then later, the female contracts DFTD from the male that pursues her.
Up next is a 2:47 min video which was published on March 26th, 2014 by the San Diego Zoo. I was thoroughly impressed by how carefully Tasmanian devils are examined and monitored. It features Sarah Graham, Communications Manager, and Bill Brown, Wildlife Biologist, with the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.
Saving the Tasmanian Devil on the Tasman Peninsula
Published March 26th, 2014 by the San Diego Zoo
A Vaccine Is Desperately Needed to Save Tasmanian Devils
The work that Dr. Hannah Siddle and an interdisciplinary team of experts will be doing may also impact us. Her research will further our own understanding of how cancers "trick" the immune system. This could lead to advances in cancer treatments for humans (or other species).
In the ScienceDaily article, Dr. Siddle explained:
"It has proven impossible to prevent the spread of DFTD and only a successful vaccine will allow captive, immunized animals to be released into the wild, eventually eradicating the disease."
Up to this point, the only way to protect Tasmanian devils from DFTD is to isolate them (keep diseased animals away from healthy ones). But obviously, this is not a long-term solution in the wild.
A Rescued Tasmanian Devil
Does the Tasmanian Devil Get a Bad Rap?
This 16-Second Clip Might Explain (Or Perhaps It Helped Them)
Tasmanian Devil Tornado
Uploaded on January 2nd, 2012 by Compositorum from "Bedevilled Rabbit" (1957)
Want To Help Save Tasmanian Devils?
During my research, I found the most comprehensive information on the Save the Tasmanian Devil website.
Currently, there are around 300 healthy breeding animals that are protected in their program. Conservation experts recommend they have about 500 individuals to maintain the population of cancer-free Tasmanian devils.
I was astounded that it costs about $7,000 to house one devil for one year at a zoo. To bring this cost down, other types of captive management and free range enclosures are being explored.
On the Save the Tasmanian Devil: How You Can Help page, there are numerous ways to donate, start a fundraiser, sponsor an event, or even volunteer. All donations over $2 are fully tax deductible and GST exempt in Australia.