I’m not as well traveled as I’d like to be. I’d like to check out the Congo, the Brazilian rainforest, the Mongolian desert, the Galapagos, and even go back to South Africa. But, there’s just something about Australia that peeks my interest in particular. The Great Barrier Reefs are just off the coast, filled with a rainbow of fish and the great white shark. There are even whale sharks nearby. What more could a scuba diver want, really? Unfortunately the Reefs are in danger due to a number of things, global warming being a primary cause, but also by things such as the pet trade, ocean pollution, and tourists.
Australia and its accompanying islands have some unique wildlife that I’m sure we’re all familiar with: kangaroos, koalas, Tasmanian devils, dingoes, the platypus, and more. Many of this region’s animals are marsupials, animals that carry their young in a snug pouch. This group isn’t exclusive to Australia, but more species can be found here than anywhere else.
One of those unique marsupials is the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). No, I’m not talking about Taz and no, the real animal can’t turn itself into a mini tornado to wreak havoc on any food left in their paths. They are pretty cute though.
The Tasmanian devil can only be found on the island of Tasmania, though there is evidence that they used to occupy certain areas of the mainland. Research has suggested that when the dingo was introduced several thousand years ago the devils may have been pushed out. On their island they face habitat destruction and fragmentation due to increased human activity. But, the devil is facing a threat that has nothing to do with civilization creeping into their homes.
A disease is threatening the Tasmanian devil, and though it is a disease that research suggests has a history of cycling through the devils once in a while, the added threat of human encroachment may tip the precarious balance. The antagonist here is a contagious cancer that can get passed from devil to devil through their customary behavior of biting each other, which they do over mating and food. They bite each other, often in the face, passing cancerous cells, and eventually a tumor forms. This has been named, fittingly, devil facial tumor disease.
This cancer is almost always lethal, often becoming so large that it prevents the devil from eating. The tumors can grow just about anywhere; on the devils’ lips, cheeks, over their eyes, etc. It has been estimated that 70-80% of the Tasmanian devil population has been reduced due to this disease. If the current rate of transmission and death continues, it has been estimated that the devils could b extinct in 30 years.
Scientists have been studying this disease since it was first observed, tracing it back to a female devil believed to have lived almost 20 years ago. They have also recently noted that the disease seems to be changing. Though there are relatively few mutations, fewer than was expected at any rate, scientists studied the tumor cells’ DNA methylation, or “tags”, are evolving. These tags regulate which genes are turned “on” and “off”. It’s this aspect of the disease that is changing. Scientists believe that, over time, fewer and fewer sections of DNA from the disease are tagged. But what does this mean? We don’t yet know.
These molecular changes could mean that the disease is becoming more aggressive, or less. A less aggressive strain could mean that it may eventually become less lethal or even completely benign. Even a slowing down of the current rate of infection could give scientists the time they need to develop treatment, or perhaps the devils will be able to fight off the changing cancer.
The Australian government is not taking the threat to their devils lightly. They are monitoring the spread of the disease, have taken various samples for study, and have created a Save the Tasmanian Devils program to generate funding and awareness. They are even creating “insurance” populations. Just recently, after three years of planning, 15 healthy devils were relocated to Maria Island, where the disease cannot reach them, with hopes that they’ll establish a self-sustaining population.
Anyone in Aussie that wants to get involved should check out the devils website. The rest of us can donate money or even use our current and future educations to join in the battle to save the Tasmanian devils from such a unique and deadly cancer.