Scientists join forces to save Australian devil

Tue Nov 4, 2008 5:01am EST
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CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - With Australia's Tasmanian Devil facing extinction within the next 20 years, a group of Australian scientists have joined forces to try to save the endangered marsupial.

Numbers of the carnivorous marsupial that live in the wild on the southern island state of Tasmania have fallen as much as 60 percent due to a deadly and disfiguring facial cancer that can kill within months.

The animal, which is the size of a small muscular dog with black fur and ferocious temperament, was listed as an endangered species by the Tasmanian state government earlier this year.

In a bid to save the Tasmanian Devil, University of Adelaide zoologist Jeremy Austin was named to lead a national project to spend the next three years on a conservation program.

This would include trying to find a vaccine to suppress the infectious cancer that is ravaging Australia's largest living marsupial carnivore by analyzing genetic material to understand the disease's origin, spread and impact.

"Extinction of the species is a possibility within the next two decades unless disease spread can be stopped," Austin said in a statement on Tuesday.

Austin, who will be joined in the project by colleagues from South Australian Zoos and the Tasmanian government, said the loss of the devil would not only mean losing a key tourism icon but would be harmful to the ecology of Tasmania's native ecosystem.

He said Tasmanian Devils are more prone to the infectious cancer because they have low levels of genetic diversity and a chromosomal mutation unique among carnivorous mammals.

The disease is spread directly between devils through biting during the mating season.   Continued...

<p>An adult male Tasmanian Devil named Tex stretches his jaws open in his enclosure at Sydney's Taronga Zoo October 17, 2008. Taronga Zoo announced a new fundraising campaign for the Tasmanian Devil breeding program on Friday, as authorities campaign to save the world's largest carnivorous marsupial from extinction from a rare transmission cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne</p>