The Tasmanian devil, the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, is threatened by a number of different diseases and human processes which make its continued existence unclear.
The species has been listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List in 2008, following the outbreak of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), which has spread through the species in the past 8 years .
How did the Tasmanian devil became endangered?
Devil Facial Tumour Disease
The DFTD is a parasitic cancer which was first described in 1996. It is extremely aggressive, and is transmitted between devils through fighting and other means. Some high-density populations which were affected suffered a mortality rate of close to 100%. Tasmanian devil numbers have dropped by over 70% since the outbreak, and around 80 % of the remaining population is infected .
The disease is usually transmitted when one devil bites another which is infected, directly receiving the infection. Other transmission methods include consumption of an infected carcass or sharing food.
The disease begins as lumps or sores around the lips and mouth of the devil, and spreads rapidly. Cancerous tumours develop around the face which often spread over the entire body. Once a devil has been infected with the disease, it usually dies within six months due to organ failure, secondary infection, or starvation caused by the inability to feed .
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing which threatens the continued existence of the Tasmanian devil.
There are a number of other threats which also affect population numbers, or which have in the past, including:
Larger predators including dogs, cats, and foxes are a large threat to the devil. They compete for food and territory, which can cause starvation – especially among devils which are already hampered by facial tumours. It is thought that foxes also eat devil young, which may make it difficult for new, disease resistant populations to develop .
Habitat loss and fragmentation
Unfortunately, Tasmanian devils aren’t any more immune to this than any other species.
Habitat fragmentation prevents the species from breeding effectively, and therefore may reduce repopulation rates. Habitat loss is relatively self-explanatory: the less area they have to live in, the lower their population can be.
However, habitat fragmentation could potentially be helpful in the preservation of devil numbers, due to the fact that it may reduce the spread of the facial tumour disease – hopefully !
Due to the relatively high numbers of cars in Tasmania, roadkill accounts for a significant number of devil deaths every year. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but with the species already strained by the DFTD, it could be the tipping point which sends them over the brink of extinction .
Tasmanian devils are the animal which everyone knows from popular media. However, they are likely to go extinct by 2035 if a cure for the DFTD is not found .
What happens if the devils disappear?
Tasmanian devils play a crucial role in keeping the local ecosystem in balance. If they go extinct, the foxes and feral cats population could explode, and dozens of mammals species – many which are unique to Tasmania – would be wiped out. In the end, all Tasmanian wildlife could suffer if the Tasmanian devils will cease to exist.
What is being done to save the Tasmanian devil?
The ‘Save the Tasmanian Devil’ program was established to investigate the disease and condition of wild devil populations through extensive monitoring. There have been some developments in treating and preventing the disease, which does give hope to remaining devils.
Some devils have been found which appear to have resistance to the disease, leading to hopes that they can recover and that a new population can be developed. Disease free populations have been isolated on both Maria Island and in a facility near Hobart.
Captive breeding programs are in progress throughout both Tasmania and mainland Australia, which are designed to preserve the genetic variability of the species.
Do your part to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction
If you would like to help out with devil conservation (especially if you are Australian or living in Australia!), then you can volunteer with the Devil Facial Tumour Disease Team or donate to the University of Tasmania Foundation.