Thursday, 3 September 2015

Tasmanian devils thrown a lifeline by facial tumour that threatens them

Researchers say deadly tumour that has wiped out 80% of the marsupials will evolve to ensure its survival – and devils will do the same

Thursday 3 September 2015 05.55 BSTLast modified on Thursday 3 September 201506.42 BST

The deadly facial tumour disease that has killed large numbers of Tasmanian devils is evolving to increase infection rates but is unlikely to wipe out the species completely, according to new research.

A study of devils in north-western Tasmania by Australian and British scientists found that the facial tumour disease has been evolving to allow the devils to live for longer, thereby increasing the spread of the infection.

The facial tumours are spread by contact between devils, which often fight and clash heads when competing over food. The disease, first identified in 1996, is estimated to have wiped out 80% of the of the feisty marsupial’s population, based on sightings of the animal in Tasmania.

However, the findings of a 10-year project by the University of Tasmania, University of Cambridge and the Tasmanian government found that this evolution in the tumours meant that the threat of extinction was dwindling.

“The tumour is subject to changes – for its own benefit rather than the devil’s benefit,” said Dr Rodrigo Hamede, of the University of Tasmania’s school of biological sciences. “The tumour is a living organism and wants to do whatever is best for it.

“The tumour used to allow devils to survive longer and the population to sustain itself. Then the diploid strain arrived and out-competed the more benign tumour strain, and has caused a severe population decline.

“The diploid tumour at this site is the older and most common tumour type which is spread over most of Tasmania.”

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