Wracked by Face Cancer, Tasmanian Devils Fight Off Extinction

Tasmanian devils are on the verge of extinction, but a captive breeding program may be able to bring them back

Photo: jomilo75

Over the past 16 years, 85% of wild Tasmanian devils have been wiped out. Unlike many species being driven to extinction, the primary culprit is not poaching, or habitat destruction. Rather, says Elizabeth Murchison, the tasmanian devil is being wiped out by a horrifying disease. In a presentation she gave on the subject she says that the plight of the Tasmanian devil “has shown us that not only can cancer be a contagious disease, but it can also threaten an entire species with extinction.”

A recent epidemic disease, known as devil facial tumour disease, has brought an extremely rare, but equally devastating, set of circumstances together to threaten the devil population. Facial tumour disease, unlike every form of cancer known to affect humans, is transferred directly from devil to devil when they bite each other, which is “something they do a lot during feeding or mating,” says the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Though the outlook remains dire, the Telegraph has some good news: three baby devils were born at a zoo in Sydney, Australia. Tasmanian devils living in captivity are free of the disease, and zoos could serve as a safe harbor from which the animals population can grow. ABC reports that 130 devils brought into zoos from 2005 to 2008 to serve as the originators of a captive breeding program have now blossomed to more than 500 individuals.


More from Smithsonian.com:

What is Killing the Tasmanian Devil?


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