Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease

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The Tasmanian Devil is a native of the Australian fauna. This carnivorous marsupial belongs to the family Sarcophilus harrisii, and inhabits only the island state of Tasmania. The Devil is the only survivor of the genus Sarcophilus, whose numbers are dwindling due to the onslaught of a facial tumor disease.

The Tasmanian Devil is a small dog-like marsupial that inhabits the Australian forests. The stocky and muscular carnivore gets its name from the island state of Tasmania, where it is commonly found. It is now officially recognized as the world’s largest marsupial, after the extinct Thylacine. It is characterized by a jet black fur and its loud screeching cry that is very eerie. The marsupial becomes highly ferocious and offensive if disturbed when feeding, and like the skunk, it emits a terrible odor when stressed. The Devil, as it is also referred to, hunts as well as scavenges carrion. It shows preference for a solitary existence, and is known to devour other Devils at times. Today, this magnificent creature faces extinction due to a rapidly spreading epidemic of a certain facial tumor disease.

Characteristics of the Disease

This is not the first time that the Tasmanian Devil is facing extirpation. The marsupial was seen as a major threat to the livestock on the Australian mainland in the 1700s. The European settlers hunted the Devil right until 1941. However, quick government inter-mediation offered this native creature official protection. But, somehow the population of the Devil has moved on from one malady to another. Research in the 1990s unveiled the presence of a facial tumor disease that is responsible for a major drop in the Devil population. The survival of the species is threatened significantly enough for the officials to pronounce the marsupial ‘endangered’ in May 2008. The severe impact of the disease has urged the Tasmanian government to design research programs, to help the extant Devil population survive the onslaught.

DFTD is a parasitic cancer that is extremely aggressive and non-viral cancer is transmittable. The first case on record surfaced in 1996, and since then the disease has ravaged through the Devil population, resulting in almost a 50% drop in numbers. Some populations affected by the disease are exposed to as much as 100% mortality within the first year of contracting the parasitic cancer. The disease first manifests in the form of lesions around the mouth, which develop into cancerous tumors that spread throughout the body. The lumps and lesions are extremely painful and interfere with feeding, forcing the marsupial to starve to death. Devil Facial Tumor is a rare type of cancer, one of the two canine transmissible venereal tumors known.

The neuroendocrine tumor displays cancer cells with chromosomal rearrangements that are identical in nature. Research reveals that toxins in the environment are the prime suspects for the onslaught. The disease is transmitted via feeding on the same prey, biting and aggressive mating. The infectious facial cancer is also spreading rapidly due to low genetic diversity within its immune genes, especially MHC class I and II. Since the facial lesions also comprise the same genes, the marsupial’s immune system is unable to recognize the foreigners and fight them. Research reveals nine strains of the cancer, displaying a consistently evolving pattern. The infectious facial cancer could become more virulent in subsequent years and down subsequent Tasmanian Devil populations. This is feared to only further complicate genuine attempts to develop vaccines. Like the quoll, scientists are now debating whether or not the cancer mutation could spread to other related Devil species.

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