Tasmanian Devil : How close to extinction?
January 7, 2013 § 2 Comments
Taz the Tasmanian Devil, mostly seen as a brown whirl-wind of teeth and fur growling his way through a Looney Tunes cartoon, is always getting into trouble. Most of his problems are caused by his raging appetite, quick temper and tendency to try and bite his way through any obstacle. And while the real Tassie Devil may share some of these qualities, the trouble this marsupial is in is far from funny.
The Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, is the world’s largest surviving marsupial – large males can weigh in at up to 12kg and their bite is thought to be equal to that of a dog four times their size. Unlike cartoon Taz, real Devils are black with white markings, move around on all fours and have squat, powerful bodies. Their famous growls, high-pitched screeching and snarls, along with their impressive “yawn” may come across as ferocious (and did lead to the early European settlers naming it “the Devil”) but are mostly used for show and to avoid harmful fighting occurring over shares of food.
With fossils showing the Devil once lived on mainland Australia (before European settlement), they are now only found in the southern island state of Tasmania. Although they are capable of defending themselves if threatened, the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program describes Devils as shy animals, which find shelter during the day and move about to hunt during the night.
In the 1930s a bounty was offered for Devils due to their attacks on poultry and lambs, and the population plummeted. It was not until 1941 that they were protected by law. Despite this, habitat loss, competition and strikes by motor vehicles were among the major factors leading to the Devil being listed as Endangered in 2008 under Tasmania’s Threatened Species Protection Act 1995.
But the Devil is now facing its most serious fight yet: Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), threatening the Devil with extinction. The cancer was first reported in north-eastern Tasmania in 1996, and since its discovery has resulted in an overall population decline of over 60% (over 90% in the region where it was first found). As aggressive as the image of the Devil themselves, the cancer is one of only three known cancers which spreads like a contagious disease: live cells are transmitted to other Devils through biting when feeding and mating. Death usually results within months. The disease has spread across Tasmania, the battle intensifying as the cancer formed several different strains.
Urgent research has been undertaken by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (the first of several projects), which recruited experts from various fields to focus on four main goals: (i) creating a captive ”insurance” population; (ii) suppressing the disease by culling infected animals; (iii) identifying and translocating the resistant genotypes; and (iv) developing a vaccine.
A major milestone of the project was achieved on November 14th this year when 15 healthy Devils were released into the Maria Island National Park (Maria Island is a smaller island off the east coast of Tasmania, made up entirely of National Park). The release into a new, disease-free area is the result of three years of careful planning and preparation. This new population will be monitored and provide important information for future releases.
Despite various other successes with the program, the disease remains incurable. This cancer does not rest, and neither must we if we hope to save this iconic (and keystone) species from extinction. To donate or find out more ways you can help, visit: www.tassiedevil.com.au
By Lydia Hales.
Save the Tasmanian Devil Program 2011/2012 Annual Program Report (Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment)
Save the Tasmanian Devil Program Appeal Media Release, July 4th 2011.
(McCallum, H et al. 2009). Transmission dynamics of Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease may
lead to disease-induced extinction. Ecology, 90(12).