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Tasmanian Devils Likely to Survive Cancer Scourge

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 13, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- A contagious cancer that has almost decimated the Tasmanian devil population probably won't drive the species into extinction, a new study suggests.

Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) kills most of the animals it infects and has led to an 80 percent decrease in the number of wild devils since the disease was first identified in 1996.

But "our findings suggest that immediate management interventions are unlikely to be necessary to ensure the survival of Tasmanian devil populations," said research leader Konstans Wells, from Swansea University in Wales.

"With growing evidence that devils are showing signs of adaptation to DFTD and that so far the disease has not caused local extinctions, management actions targeted at understanding the devil's adaptive strategies to cope with DFTD should be considered," added study co-author Rodrigo Hamede, from the University of Tasmania.

Tasmanian devils are carnivorous marsupials, weighing about 13 to 26 pounds. DFTD, which causes tumors to form on the face and neck of the animal, is spread when the devils bite each other in the face during fighting. Affected devils die within six to 24 months.

In the study, the scientists compared field data from wild populations collected over a 10-year period in northwest Tasmania. Simulation studies suggest that DFTD-related population declines of Tasmanian devils are unlikely to continue in the future.

It's more likely that the disease will fade out or that the devils will coexist with it, according to the American, Australian and British researchers.

The study was published recently in the journal Ecology.

"Complete eradication of DFTD is not feasible, therefore studying the long-term interactions between devils and tumors will provide a realistic prognosis for the species and at the same time will help us to understand important evolutionary processes," Hamede said in a Swansea news release.

"This is particularly relevant given the recent outbreak of a new transmissible cancer -- devil facial tumor 2 -- affecting devil populations in southeastern Tasmania. Devils seem to be prone to transmissible cancers, so studying epidemic dynamics and evolutionary responses to this type of diseases should be a priority," Hamede said.

More information

The Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service has more on the Tasmanian devil.

SOURCE: Swansea University, news release, Jan. 23, 2019

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