Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that several thousand wild Tasmanian devils have been set apart in an effort to save the species. The number is about 100.

Bedeviled by Disease

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It looks like a small, stocky dog with a bear's head. It prefers to find dead animals to eat. It shrieks like a fiend, and its ears turn deep purple when it is agitated. And right now this strange little beast is in trouble -- serious trouble.

The Tasmanian devil is facing extinction because a contagious cancer unique to devils is sweeping over Tasmania, a large island state off the southeast coast of Australia and the only place where these marsupials live in the wild.

Discovered in 1996, devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) causes painful tumors to grow around the mouths and heads of the devils. Once the cancer becomes visible, death follows in six to 12 months.

As much as half the wild devil population, which once numbered 160,000, might have been affected so far. As of now, there is no vaccine or other cure.

"They're in a pretty bad way," says Elizabeth Murchison, an Australian cancer researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. "It would be so, so sad if devils disappeared. It's motivating us [researchers] to work really hard" to find a treatment.

Distressing Disease

Unlike most cancers, DFTD is contagious. The disease is passed through biting.

Once bitten by an infected devil, a healthy animal's immune system doesn't work properly, so the cancer grows, explains Hamish McCallum, who heads the DFTD program at the University of Tasmania.

"To encounter [diseased] devils in the wild is really quite distressing," says Murchison. "They have a bad reputation because they make such a ghastly sound, but they are really very sweet."

When the cancer is in its later stages, the devils can no longer eat. They become extremely thin. "Sometimes their jaws are broken, teeth are broken," Murchison says.

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