Tasmanian Devils Named Endangered Species

Dave Hansford in Wellington, New Zealand
for National Geographic News
May 21, 2008
The Tasmanian devil, a feisty marsupial that lives only in the Australian island state of Tasmania, was deemed an endangered species this week by the state's government.

The government had previously classified the creature as vulnerable. But its more critical status comes in response to a fatal epidemic of devil facial tumor disease, which has wiped out large numbers of the animal.

Devil numbers are difficult to estimate, but state government figures suggest the animals may have plummeted from around 150,000 in the mid-1990s to between 20,000 and 50,000 by the end of 2006.

"The change in the devil's status reflects the real possibility that this iconic species could face extinction in the wild within 20 years," Tasmania's Primary Industries Minister David Llewellyn said in a statement.

(Read: "Tasmanian Devils Decimated by Mystery Cancer" [March 29, 2005].)

Unusual Cancer

The devils' disease is one of just two known cancers able to spread like a contagious disease, and is transmitted when one devil bites another.

Large tumors form on the faces and necks of the animals, making it impossible for them to eat. Many of the afflicted animals subsequently die of starvation.

Sightings of devils have dropped by 64 percent in the past decade, according to Warwick Brennan, spokesperson for the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, a joint effort of the state government and the University of Tasmania.

"It's a stark warning about how suddenly and dramatically things can change," he said.

The disease has now spread across more than 60 percent of the state, and in the northeast—where it was first detected in 1996—there have been no signs of recovery, he added.

"Usually a disease will peter out in time, but we're just not seeing that."

No one knows the cause of the disease, though some experts have suggested flame retardants found in some devils may make them more susceptible to cancer.

Ecological Impact

Ray Nias heads WWF-Australia's conservation program.

He said Tasmanian wildlife would suffer if the devil disappeared, because it has prevented alien predators—such as foxes and feral cats—from exploding in number.

(Related: "Foxes Invade Tasmania, Create 'Environmental Emergency'" [August 22, 2006].)

"Tasmania is an ark for Australia," Nias said. "Its mammal fauna is still largely intact.

"If the devils go, and the foxes and cats increase, it would be all over for a good dozen or more species of mammals—many of which are unique to Tasmania … not to mention lizards and ground-dwelling birds."

Last Bastion

Conservationists are pinning their hopes on a small wild population of the marsupials in Tasmania's northwest, where the disease has yet to take hold.

"There remains a suggestion that perhaps that population has some immunity," the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program's Brennan said.

Already, some healthy devils have been captured and sent to facilities on mainland Australia to form the nucleus of a captive-breeding population.

"We're hoping that this [endangered listing] will lead to wider recognition of just how serious the threat remains … and bring further assistance in," Brennan said.

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