The Devil’s Cancer
Picture from Flickr
By Karen Lourdes
MSc Applied Wildlife Conservation
The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harisii) is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial (STDP, 2017). The species is found only on the island of Tasmania, off mainland Australia and is currently on the brink of extinction.
The threat? Cancer.
Taz, the Tasmanian Devil, the cartoon character from ‘Looney Tunes’ is based on Tasmanian devils. Although honestly, he doesn’t look like the real deal.
Tasmanian devils are small, black, muscular little animals, about as big as a small dog. The name, however, comes from the loud, piercing shriek the Tasmanian
devils make, which sounds like, well the Devil! They are also infamous for their bad temper and aggressive behaviour. The devils are not picky scavengers (feed on leftover flesh, yumm!), and are nocturnal (active mainly at night) creatures.
Tasmanian devils are marsupials, which means they give birth to their young but carry them in a pouch until they fully develop, like a kangaroo. They are one of the two carnivorous marsupial species left in the world! The other being the Eastern Quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus), which we’ll talk about later.
The Contagious Cancer
As Elizabeth Murchison, a leading researcher in the field, explains in her TED-Talk, the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a transmissible cancer. DFTD was discovered in 1996, in North East Tasmania, as a photographer captured an image of a Tasmanian devil sporting a large tumour on its face.
DFTD is a unique type of cancer, transmissible only within the Tasmanian devil species. It is one of the four naturally occurring transmissible cancers known to date.
DFTD spreads between Tasmanian devils as they ferociously bite each other on face, upon meeting. The tumour begins as a small growth on the face or inside the mouth of the devil, eventually growing into a large, ulcerating, foul-smelling tumour.
Murchison recalls one particular case of a female Tasmanian devil, which had a tumour so big in her mouth, that it broke her lower jaw. The Tasmanian devil was unable to eat for four days and eventually, died of starvation, along with the two pups in her pouch.
Studies show that the species has undergone a drastic decline of over 90% in the last 10 years (Fancourt et al 2015). Without a cure, the species is expected to be extinct in the wild within the next 20 to 30 years.
There is currently no cure for DFTD.
The rapid spread across Tasmania.
Devil Decline Bringing Eastern Quolls Down
Remember the Eastern Quolls? The quolls, which had been declining severely in the last two decades, are showing no signs of recovery.
A study by Fancourt et al (2015) suggest that the decline in the devil population has resulted in the increase of feral cat populations, due to lack of competition. The feral cats are predating on young Eastern quolls, making it difficult for quoll numbers to recover. The devils play an important role as a top predator, in keeping other smaller predators at bay.
Saving the Tasmanian Devils
There have been great efforts to save the Tasmanian devil species from extinction, particularly from the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP). The program was established in 2003 and is funded by the Australian and Tasmanian government.
The aim of the program is to protect and maintain a DFTD-free population of Tasmanian devils to ensure the species’ survival. The program established a captive population of Tasmanian devils in 2005, as an “insurance population”, in the event that the species goes extinct in the wild. The captive population will play a key role should they need to re-establish a healthy, wild population in the future.
On-going efforts to create vaccines and cures are the only hope left for saving the Tasmanian devils from this contagious cancer.
Bradford, A. (2014). Facts About Tasmanian Devils, Live Science, Accessed 3/11/2017 at URL: https://www.livescience.com/27440-tasmanian-devils.html
Fancourt, B.A., Hawkins, C.E., Cameron, E.Z., Jones, M.E. and Nicol, S.C. (2015). Devil Declines and Catastrophic Cascades: Is Mesopredator Release of Feral Cats Inhibiting Recovery of the Eastern Quoll? PLOS ONE, 10(3), doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0119303
Murchison, E. (2011, Sept 22). Elizabeth Murchison: Fighting a contagious cancer. [Video file]. Accessed from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHbjwH2Blfg
Save The Tasmanian Devil Program (2017). [Website]. Accessed on 3/11/2017 at URL: