'Gentler devil' hope for threatened marsupial

September 4, 2012
A 14-month-old Tasmanian Devil bites the trouser leg of his keeper at Devil Ark in Australia's New South Wales state, in April 2012. Could the Tasmanian devil, a ferocious marsupial threatened by facial tumours spread by biting, be saved by a change of character? Zoologists think there's a chance.

Could the Tasmanian devil, a ferocious marsupial threatened by facial tumours spread by biting, be saved by a change of character? Zoologists think there's a chance.

The wild population of devils has slumped by more than 90 percent since the first surfaced in 1996, and there is neither a cure nor a vaccine.

But a four-year investigation by a team led by Rodrigo Hamede of the University of Tasmania found something intriguing: the less often an animal was bitten, the likelier it was to become infected.

The finding is "surprising and counter-intuitive," said Hamede.

"In most , there are so-called super-spreaders, a few individuals responsible for the transmission. But we found the more aggressive devils, rather than being super-spreaders, are super-receivers."

The reason, said Hamede: The more aggressive devils are likelier to bite than be bitten. As a result, they bite the mouth tumours of less aggressive devils and thus become infected.

The finding opens up a way of nurturing colonies of devils that favour less aggressive animals, he hoped.

"We need more detailed data on devil behaviour to define 'shy' or 'bold' types," said Hamede.

Graphic on Australia's Tasmanian Devils, rare carnivorous marsupials in a battle for survival against a contagious facial cancer.

"We could use this information to develop a management strategy to reduce the spread of the disease by boosting natural selection of less aggressive, and therefore more resilient, devils."

Monitoring devils will give the key as to which animals are the most promising candidates.

The rat-like carnivores are reclusive but , which sleep by day and forage by night. They do not live in groups but encounter each other quite often, for mating or feeding around carcasses, and this is when they bite each other.

The disease is transmitted through that break away from the tumour and infect the biter.

Devils once roamed Australia and at one point were considered by colonial farmers to be a pest. Since about 1600 they have been isolated to Tasmania, an island state south of the mainland.

They got their name for guttural cries that prompted early British settlers to call them "devils."

The study appears in the Journal of Animal Ecology, published by the British Ecological Society (BES).

Explore further: Tasmanian devils face extinction

More information: Rodrigo K. Hamede, Hamish McCallum and Menna Jones (2012). 'Biting injuries and transmission of Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease', doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2012.02025.x, is published in the Journal of Animal Ecology at 21:00 GMT on Monday 3 September 2012.

Related Stories

Social networking study reveals threat to Tasmanian devils

August 19, 2009

A new study into the social networks of Tasmanian devils may help prevent the further spread of an extinction-threatening disease. The research, published in Ecology Letters, has produced an intricate social network of devil ...

Culling can't save the Tasmanian devil

October 4, 2011

Culling will not control the spread of facial tumour disease among Tasmanian devils, according to a new study published this week in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology. Unless a way of managing the ...

Race to save the devil Down Under

May 17, 2012

It's been hundreds of years since the Tasmanian devil last lived on the Australian mainland but, in the misty hills of Barrington Tops, a pioneering group is being bred for survival.

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

4 million years at Africa's salad bar

August 3, 2015

As grasses grew more common in Africa, most major mammal groups tried grazing on them at times during the past 4 million years, but some of the animals went extinct or switched back to browsing on trees and shrubs, according ...

A look at living cells down to individual molecules

August 3, 2015

EPFL scientists have been able to produce footage of the evolution of living cells at a nanoscale resolution by combining atomic force microscopy and an a super resolution optical imaging system that follows molecules that ...

New lizard named after Sir David Attenborough

August 3, 2015

A research team led by Dr Martin Whiting from the Department of Biological Sciences recently discovered a beautifully coloured new species of flat lizard, which they have named Platysaurus attenboroughi, after Sir David Attenborough.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.