November 4, 2008 / 10:03 AM / 9 years ago

Scientists join forces to save Australian devil

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.

"We need to establish whether the low levels of genetic diversity are due to recent human impacts or a long-term historical pattern. We also need to look at how the cancer is affecting surviving populations and identify individuals that may be resistant to the disease," he said.

Tasmanian Devils became extinct on the Australian mainland at least 400 years ago and are now found only in Tasmania but in the past decade their numbers have fallen drastically.

"We have lost over half our devils in the past 10 years, with an estimated population of 20,000 to 50,000 mature devils left. Extinction within the next 20 years is a real possibility unless we find a vaccine, eradicate the disease and establish captive colonies," said Austin.

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Bill Tarrant

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