Cancer Could Wipe Out Tasmanian Devils

A healthy-looking Tasmanian devil

This image of a healthy-looking Tasmanian devil was captured in the wild by a remote sensor camera. Tasmanian researchers are using the cameras to monitor the health of more isolated devil populations. Tasmania's Nature Conservation Branch hide caption

itoggle caption Tasmania's Nature Conservation Branch
A Tasmanian devil with Devil Facial Tumor Disease.

A Tasmanian devil with Devil Facial Tumor Disease. The facial cancers are first noticed around the mouth as small lesions or lumps. These develop into large tumors around the face and neck and sometimes other parts of the body. Tasmania's Nature Conservation Branch hide caption

itoggle caption Tasmania's Nature Conservation Branch

The Tasmanian devil, one of the world's most unusual animals, is in danger of extinction. A mysterious form of cancer has wiped out as many as half the devils in Tasmania, off the coast of Australia, and there is no known cure.

Named after its native island, the Tasmanian devil is known for its piercing cry and generally brutish behavior. Reaching an average size of 25 pounds, devils are capable of killing a rodent or bird, but they mostly prefer to scavenge from carcasses.

Until recently, there were only about 150,000 devils in the world, almost all in Tasmania. Now half of those are dead, killed off by a bizarre facial cancer that appeared several years ago and continues to spread.

The cancer appears as tumors around the head; it can spread into the jaw, the eye, the neck and other parts of the devil's body. Many of the tumors secrete toxins. If the cancer doesn't kill the animal outright, the tumors eventually block the throat and starve or suffocate the animal. No one knows how the disease started or how to treat it.

Researchers say there's no test to see if a devil has been infected. Their best hope is to find young, uninfected animals and quarantine them.

MULTIMEDIA

Devils are known for their screeching cries, black color and reputed bad temper. See and hear a devil in the wild:

Watch members of a Tasmanian wildlife monitoring team check trap sites that were specially developed to examine devils in the wild for signs of disease:

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