Tasmanian Devil CancerTasmanian Devil Facile Tumour Disease (DFTD)

The Tasmanian devil Facile Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a contagious, transmittable cancer first detected in wild Tasmanian devils in 1996. Since then it has devastated vast numbers of these animals, bringing them to the brink of extinction.


What is a Tasmanian Devil? Description of the Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian devil is the world's largest carnivorous (meat-eating) marsupial. Surviving only in the small island of Tasmania off the southern coast of Australia, tt is listed as endangered and near extinct largely as a result of a fatal disease known as Tasmanian devil Facile Tumour Disease.

About the size of a small dog, the Tasmanian devil is known by this unflattering name because of its unearthly screams, eerie growls, dark black colour, foul odour, bad temper and aggressive behaviour.

It is a stocky muscular little animal about 60cm from head to tail and 30cm tall at its shoulders. It weigh up to 12 kilograms. The Tasmanian Devil's body is covered with black fur, except for a prominent white streak of fur on its chest and sometimes some white markings on its rump. It has a large head with a short muzzle with long whiskers and extremely powerful jaws for an animal of its size. Its front legs are longer than its rear legs. It has a short thick tail in which its stores its body fat for use as a reserve during hard times. the adult male is usually larger than the adult female. They live to about five years of age.

Scientific name - Sarcophilus harrisi (From the Latin names "sarco" meaning flesh and "philus" meaning creature/animal attached to. So Sarcophilus means a creature that likes flesh or meat. Harrisi is the latinised rendition of "Harris" the surname of the first person to formally identify and catalogue the Tasmanian devil.

Related: Tasmanian Devil The Largest Carnivorous Marsupial Alive Today


Tasmanian Devil Cancer What is Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease?

When was it First Detected?

The Tasmanian devil Facile Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a contagious, transmittable cancer first detected in wild Tasmanian devils in 1996. Since then it has devastated vast numbers of these animals, bringing them to the brink of extinction.

How did it Start?

Recent research suggests that this hitherto unknown disease first originated in a single cancerous cell of a single female Tasmanian devil (known as patient zero) sometime around 1996. Since then it has spread rapidly through the wild population killing nearly 80% of the Tasmanians Devils.

Tasmanian Devils' Low Generic Diversity

Scientists suggest that one reason that the DFTD has spread so wildly amongst the Tasmanian devil population is that the animals have a very low generic diversity. That is to say that there is very little difference between the genes of one animal and another. This means that there is less chance of animals which could have resistance to the tumour. This low genetic density is because the Tasmanian devil has been isolated on the island of Tasmania for a very long period of time.

How is the Disease Transmitted?

Tasmanian devils have a tendency to bite and nip each other on the face and neck during feeding and mating creating puncture wounds. It is believed that the virus is transmitted from one devil to another in this manner.

What Happens once Infected?

Once infected the animal quickly grows huge hideous looking tumours on its face and jaw which prevents it from eating. The poor creature either starves to death, because it can't eat or dies from organ failure once the cancer metastasises. The typical survival rate, once infected, is less than six months.

Are Other Animals Affected?

Only Tasmanian devils are susceptible to this disease. The disease has not been detected in any other animals.

What's being done to Save the Tasmanian devil?

At present there is no cure or vaccine to prevent the disease. In order to prevent the animal from becoming extinct, approximately 500 healthy devils have been moved to nineteen zoos and wildlife parks on the Australian mainland and two zoos overseas. It is hoped that this will help save the Tasmanian devil from extinction.

Latest Research

A recent survey of Tasmanian devils found encouraging signs that some of these animals are actually fighting off the the facial tumour disease and recovering from it. Scientists believe that the animals produce chemicals called cytokines which help them defeat the tumours.


Tasmanian Devil Conservation Status

The Tasmanian devil, found only on the island of Tasmania today, has seen a drastic decline in its population. In the mid 1990's the population was estimated at around 150,000 animals by 2016 this number had declined to about 35,000.

The major cause of their decline is the Tasmanian devil Facial Tumour Disease (TDFTD) which has wiped out large numbers of them.


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