A race to save Tasmanian devils

In a desperate attempt to save the species from a cancer epidemic, scientists have sent 15 Tasmanian devils to an isolated island where they can breed away from the infected population.

Scientists from around the world are banding together to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction.

An elusive strain of contagious cancer threatens to wipe out the entire population of the species, whose numbers are declining at an alarming rate due to the illness.

The latest idea to save the devils, according to The New York Times, is to sequester uninfected ones on an isolated island and let them reproduce in a cancer-free environment.

In November, a team of medical officials dropped 15 devils onto Maria Island with the hope of establishing a health colony there.

If the devils die out in Tasmania, Dr. Katherine Belov, a biologist at the University of Sydney, told the Times, “the disease will be gone from the mainland, and then they can be introduced back in the wild.”

Unfortunately, the scientists acknowledge that both time and the odds are against them. Almost 84 percent of the Tasmanian devil population has been killed by the extremely rare and almost incurable type of facial tumor. What vexes scientists more than anything is the contagious nature of the cancer, an attribute not typically associated with the disease.

Among humans, person-to-person cancer transmission is highly uncommon, only occurring, very rarely, in the case of organ replacement when the donated part contains an unseen tumor. Communicable cancers are similarly irregular in the natural world. According to the Times, one of the only instances involved a benign tumor in dogs.

Tasmanian devils, the world's largest carnivorous marsupial, spread the malignant tumors to one another by following their natural behaviors. The devils often bite at each other's mouths. While a starting point for the tumor is difficult to pinpoint, scientists believe a female living in the late '80s or early '90s developed a drastic mutation in her facial nerve cells. When she was bit in the mouth, the tumor ruptured, and was shared with her attacker.

The subsequent cancer has been vicious and unrelenting. According to Smithsonian Magazine, It responds to neither chemotherapy nor surgical removal, and the facial tumors it produces make it nearly impossible for infected devils to swallow food. Sadly, many starve to death before the cancer can kill them.

"It is undoubtedly one of the most successful cancer lineages that we know of," Tasmanian-born geneticist Elizabeth Murchison, who studies the afflicted animals as part of Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, told Smithsonian.

Aside from being resistant to treatment, the cancer is also evolving rapidly, which has created an even larger headache for researchers already doing everything they can to save the Tasmanian devil. Up until a few years ago, scientists thought they were dealing with a stable disease. More recently, however, research teams have unmasked startling evidence showing that the Tasmanian cancer cells swiftly infiltrate and dismantle healthy cells and use their proteins to travel freely. What's worse: The toxic cells are also highly self-camouflaging, making them difficult for animals' immune systems to fend off.

While scientists have investigated vaccines, the results are too untested and the costs too high to rely on alone. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, it could cost $11 million to save the Tasmanian devil, which is a stiff price to pay when Australia is already burdened with an expected $290 million bill to rescue 21 other endangered species on its mainland and islands.

In the face of rising costs, unproven vaccines and a shrinking timetable, scientists have been forced to think outside of  box in order to save the species. They tried picking out sick animals from active populations, but that strategy failed when the infected group proved too numerous to collect.

Now, scientists are charting a reverse course, removing healthy animals from their natural environments and dropping them onto isolated islands where they can breed — scientists hope — in peace.

Researchers aren't stopping at Maria Island, either. They've begun quarantining healthy devils within the mainland and relocating them to zoos and other protected environments.  This strategy will leave Tasmania with two quarantined devil populations if no vaccination method is discovered in the meantime.

Aside from isolated colonies, there's a small ray of hope in far Northwest Tasmania, where a group of devils has showed signs of destroying their cancer. Only about 20 percent of the animals in that area have died from the disease.

But with so few devils left in their natural environments and so many of that number riddled with cancer, scientists reluctantly acknowledge that time is indeed running out for them to save an entire species — and perhaps others — from extinction.

"You feel that the clock is always ticking," Dr. Murchison told the Times.

 

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