PAGE 1 OF 2
A Devil of a Problem
by Peter Tarr
Nocturnal scavengers by nature, Tasmanian devils show agression only during communal feeding—usually as a bluff, to minimize fighting and establish dominance.
The Tasmanian devil has none of the attributes that draw millions to the cause of an endangered species. Though related to the koala, the badger-sized creature is not exactly soft and cuddly. A scavenging marsupial, it has a mouth that opens wide, revealing a long fleshy tongue and frightfully sharp canine teeth, which it puts to good use in middle-of-the-night tussles with neighboring devils over scraps of road kill.
During those nocturnal food fights, the devil emits its signature “vocalization”—a bone-chilling howl-retch that brings to mind, all at once, a mountain lion's growl, a snake's hiss, and a chronic bronchial patient's early-morning throat-clearing.
The fighting that characterizes relations among the normally solitary devils is more than a curiosity. It's thought to be responsible for the spread of a deadly disease that has placed Tasmania's largest remaining marsupial carnivore on the road to extinction and has cast HHMI investigator Gregory J. Hannon and colleagues at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York, in the role of genomic detectives.
A dozen years ago, a wildlife photographer returned from a foray in Tasmania—a West Virginia-sized island just off the southeastern tip of Australia—with pictures of a devil that many found hard to look at. A grotesque series of tumors had virtually consumed the little creature's face, covering its mouth and preventing it from feeding. In the following months, more animals with similar facial tumors were reported.
The cancer, dubbed devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), has since spread like an infection, radiating west and south from its point of origin and claiming up to half of Tasmania's devil population, estimated at 150,000 before DFTD's first appearance.
“It's remarkable to think that all of this has happened within my lifetime, while I was growing up in Tasmania,” says Elizabeth Murchison, a postdoc in Hannon's lab who brought the devil's plight to his attention several years ago. Murchison and an Australian veterinarian and doctoral candidate, Hannah Bender, now spearhead an effort in the lab to characterize the tumors associated with DFTD.
Photo: Tim Dub