Tasmanian devils face new cancer threat for survival in the wild

A new study from a British university has revealed that the Tasmanian devil is under severe threat from a newly emerged contagious cancer, which could be catastrophic for the animal’s survival in the wild.

Scientists at the University of Southampton in the UK have announced that a secondary cancer found in the animals — first thought to be circulating in a small population of the marsupials — could now do more damage to an already weakened population.

New research led by University of Southampton biological scientist Dr Hannah Siddle, published in eLife, has shown that this cancer has the potential to cause irreversible carnage to the world’s largest remaining marsupial carnivore.

“There is a real threat that this contagious cancer could now spread very rapidly through the population,” Dr. Siddle said. “The Tasmanian devil has already been decimated by one contagious cancer and these latest findings could jeopardize its future in the wild.”

For more than 20 years, Tasmanian devils have been suffering from Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), which causes close to 100 per cent mortality in the species.

The facial cancer, which spreads when the marsupials bite each other’s faces during fighting, kills the animals within months. Thousands of Tasmanian devils have been wiped out via the disease.

Dr. Siddle’s study has found that the cancer cells have MHC molecules, which enable the immune system to determine if a cell is friend or foe, triggering an immune response if the cell is foreign and a potential threat.

The researchers, however, have found evidence have also found evidence that the cancerous cells may be losing their MHC, attacking the immune system and making it much more likely that the cancer will be able to spread rapidly.

“Although this could be very bad news for the Tasmanian devil, we are in a better position than we were when the first contagious cancer emerged. We are further ahead with research and with developing captive management strategies,” Dr. Siddle said.

“However, this is a warning to how we manage not just the Tasmanian devil but all vulnerable species, particularly those confined to islands, where disease is a real threat and can do a lot of damage quickly.”

The Tasmanian devil is listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, with its global population believed to have suffered an 80 per cent decline in numbers since the mid-1990s, with only around 10,000 to 15,000 left in the wild.

This story originally appeared in news.com.au.