Mystery cancer strikes Tasmanian devils
Experts fear the Tasmanian devil might survive only in Warner Bros. cartoons, as a mystery disease slashes the ferocious scavenger's numbers in the wild.
The black fox-sized marsupials with a bloodcurdling growl and powerful jaws that crunch through the bones of much larger animals have been plentiful in Australia's island state of Tasmania, which is their only natural habitat.
But a state government study released last week said an incurable facial cancer has already wiped out up to half the wild population _ or 75,000 devils _ since it was discovered in 1997. The leader of a state government task force searching for the disease's cause, Alistair Cotter, said Thursday he did not believe the cancer alone could drive the world's largest marsupial carnivore to extinction.
But the disease combined with competition for food from a substantial population of foxes could, he said.
"That's a pretty awful prospect," Cotter said. "At this stage, we're not looking at the prospect (of extinction). However, we are very concerned about the situation," he added.
Several foxes are believed to have been introduced to Tasmania from the Australian mainland four years ago and the state government has been attempting to eradicate them and their offspring ever since.
"Our belief is that devils may have prevented foxes establishing in Tasmania in the past by taking any young that have been produced," said Cotter, a government nature conservation manager. "If foxes do establish here and the devil numbers are at a low ebb, that could significantly alter the nature of Tasmanian biodiversity."
Researchers suspect the disease is passed from devil to devil as they bite and scratch each other while squabbling over animal carcasses.
The massive facial tumors reduce the animal's ability to feed and kill in about six months.
Tests are about to examine whether natural or man-made toxins could cause the tumors.
Devils can give birth to 40 tiny offspring at a time. But a mother can only nurse four in her pouch at once, and the remainder die.
Cotter said researchers expected to understand what causes the cancer within a year.
"Whether that will lead to a cure, we don't know at this point," he said.
The devil's cousin, the large dog-sized Tasmanian tiger, is thought to be extinct. The last known tiger died in a Tasmanian zoo in 1933, although unconfirmed sightings have frequently been reported since then.
Devils became internationally famous through the creation of the ferocious Tasmanian Devil character in Warner Bros.' "Looney Tunes" cartoons.