Tasmanian Devils and Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD)

Updated on March 3, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

A resting Tasmanian devil
A resting Tasmanian devil | Source

The Sad Case of an Endangered Marsupial

The Tasmanian devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world. It’s known for its loud screams, shrieks, and snarls. Sadly, it’s an endangered animal. A major reason for this population status is a form of cancer that produces tumors on the animal's face. The disorder is known as devil facial tumor disease, or DTFD. The cancer is contagious and is transmitted when one animal bites another’s face, as may happen during mating and feeding. There is no known cure for the disease. It's always fatal.

In 2017, researchers reported that immunotherapy helped a small group of Tasmanian devils by either preventing tumor development or causing existing tumors to regress. More research and trials are needed, but immunotherapy might eventually be a helpful treatment or prevention strategy for devil facial tumor disease.

An Introduction to the Animal

Tasmanian devils generally don't attack people. Like most wild animals, however, they would probably do so in self defence and could inflict a nasty injury.

The Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian devil has the scientific name Sarcophilus harrisii. It lives only in Tasmania. The animal has a stocky build and is about the size of a small dog. It’s about 0.3 meters or twelve inches high at the shoulder when fully grown and about 0.6 meters or two feet long. Adult males weigh around fourteen kilograms or thirty pounds and adult females a little less.

The devil is mostly black in color but often has a white patch on its chest and side or on its rump. It may also have patches of brown hair. The animal has a big head, powerful jaws, and a large nose. Its ears are often noticeably pink or red on their inner surface. They may turn an even deeper shade of red when the animal is upset.

The devil has a reputation as a fierce creature with respect to its behaviour towards other members of its species. Its growls, barks, and screams while feeding support this reputation. The sounds may be bone-chilling for humans. A loud and threatening sneeze is also part of the animal's repertoire and is used to establish dominance.

The devil's behavior is sometimes misunderstood. Some of the sounds that it produces prevent a fight with other animals instead of triggering one. Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania says that most bites are linked to reproduction and that bites during feeding are rare.

Tasmanian devils vary enormously in personality. Some individuals are very calm and tolerant, others very excitable.

— Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

The Tasmanian devil is often referred to as simply a "devil". It's affectionately known as a Tassie or a Tassie devil. (Yes, some people do look upon the animal with affection.)

Daily Life

Tasmanian devils live in a wide variety of habitats. They seem to enjoy water and are good swimmers. They are usually nocturnal. During the day they hide in places such as burrows, thick bush, hollow logs, and caves. A large rock or stone may also provide suitable shelter. The animals may leave their shelter during the day to sunbathe, though they try not to attract attention while they do this. During the night the devils search for food. They may travel ten to twenty kilometres (six to twelve miles) in a night. They have a home range but don't maintain a territory. They are solitary animals but sometimes meet other devils while feeding.

The animals are mainly scavengers but also hunt prey, including frogs, lizards, ground birds, small mammals, and insects. Their sense of smell is excellent and very helpful in the hunt for food. They produce a strong and unpleasant smell themselves when they are stressed. They also have good hearing. The strong jaws and teeth of the devils enable them to eat the entire body of many animals, including the bones. When they are well fed, fat is deposited in their tail. The animals play a useful role in their environment because they remove the carrion that attracts insects.

An animal at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park
An animal at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park | Source

An open mouth display is often not what it seems. The animal above is likely displaying uncertainty or fear instead of aggression.

Reproduction

The Tasmanian devil is a marsupial, which means the babies are born in a very immature stage and develop in the mother’s pouch. The gestation period is around three weeks. The babies are called imps or joeys. When the imps are born, they are as small as a grain of rice. They are pink in color and have no hair. They have to crawl over their mother's body to reach the pouch, whose opening faces backwards. Up to fifty imps enter the pouch, but only four teats are available. An imp grabs hold of a teat with its mouth and stays attached to it as it grows. The imps that don't reach a teat die.

The successful youngsters stay in the pouch for about four months as they complete their development. When they emerge, their mother often carries them around on her back until they get too big for this form of transport. The devils can climb trees while they are small. This task is difficult for the adults, however. The youngsters become independent from their mother around five months after leaving the pouch.

The animals are reproductively mature at around two years of age. Their normal lifespan appears to be five to eight years. Wild devils generally live for a much shorter time than this at the moment due to devil facial tumor disease.

Although the wild devil population is in serious trouble, captive and healthy animals exist in various facilities. Breeding programs have been established in some places.

Moments in a Tasmanian Devil's Life

Devil Facial Tumor Disease

Devil Facial Tumor Disease was discovered in 1996. An affected animal develops large, irregularly shared lumps on its face and head. Lumps may partially or completely cover an eye and may also appear inside the mouth. Animals with the disease live for only six to twelve months once the tumors appear. They often die due to starvation because the tumors around their mouth prevent them from eating.

The disease is transmitted by living cancer cells being passed from one animal to another. When cells from another individual's body enter a recipient, the recipient's immune system normally recognizes that an invader is present and attacks the cells. For some reason, this doesn't happen in DFTD. The devil's immune system remains quiescent and the cancer cells are able to multiply.

No treatment or effective vaccine for DTFD exists at the moment. Researchers are studying the disease in an attempt to help Tasmanian devils. Some interesting discoveries have been made, but more research is necessary.

A curious Tassie devil
A curious Tassie devil | Source

MHC Molecules

Researchers think the devil's immune system isn't activated because the cancer cells don't produce MHC molecules. "MHC" stands for major histocompatibilty complex. MHC Class 1 molecules are glycoproteins (proteins with carbohydrate attached) found on the surface membranes of cells with a nucleus. The molecules help the immune system to distinguish self from nonself. MHC molecules are involved in the fight against pathogens and in the rejection of a tissue transplant from a genetically-different individual.

Function of MHC Molecules

MHC molecules display a small piece of protein known as a peptide, which is obtained from inside the cell. This peptide may be a normal component of the cell or it may be abnormal, such as a peptide obtained from a virus or bacterium that has infected the cell. Certain T cells in the immune system have already been primed to recognize problematic peptides that have entered the body. An appropriate T cell "finds" a dangerous peptide on an MHC molecule by binding to it. Another type of T cell then destroys the cell displaying the peptide.

An Allograft

Transmission of DFTD cells from one devil to another is a type of allograft (a tissue transplant from one member of a species to another member who is genetically different). We would expect the recipient's body to recognize that the tissue doesn't belong in the body because the MHC molecules on its cells display the wrong peptides. Since the devil cancer cells have no MHC molecules on their surface, however, there is nothing for the T cells to bind to and they don't recognize that the tissue is harmful.

The devil's immune system does recognize allogeneic skin grafts and at least some types of cancer cells originating outside their body. There seems to be a specific problem with DFTD cells that prevents the animal's immune system from attacking them.

An interesting perch and view
An interesting perch and view | Source

Researchers have found that DFTD cells contain the genes needed to make MHC molecules, but the genes are inactive. Activating the genes in the cancer cells might be helpful in preventing or treating the disease.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is the modification of the immune system's action in order to treat a disease. The immune system may be enhanced in some way or it may be inhibited. In 2017, a team consisting of multiple researchers reported the use of immunotherapy in Tasmanian devils. Due to the endangered status of the population, the researchers couldn’t use many animals in their project. The results of the experiment could be significant, however.

The research involved nine healthy animals, some of which were at an "advanced" age. This may have affected the results of the experiment. The experiment lasted for five years. The immunization consisted of the administration of modified DFTD cells that had been triggered to develop MHC molecules. Encouraging effects of the immunotherapy appeared in some of the animals.

  • One of the immunized animals didn't develop tumors after exposure to unmodified DFTD cells.
  • Six of the animals developed tumors when exposed to unmodified DFTD cells before immunization. When they were later immunized by modified DFTD cells, the tumors regressed in three of the animals. The regression was accompanied by the formation of antibodies to the cancer cells.

Two animals in the experiment were never immunized. One was given an adjuvant (a substance that was used to boost immunity) while the other received no special treatment. These animals were used as controls. Controls are used in experiments in order to prove that a factor that is being tested—in this case, modified cancer cells—is the cause of any benefit that is observed.

An animal in the Australian Reptile Park
An animal in the Australian Reptile Park | Source

Problems With the Experiment

Though the results of the immunotherapy experiment are intriguing, the sample size was small and the age of some of the animals wasn't ideal. The animals were aged five to seven at their entry into the experiment, which meant that at least some were near the end of their natural lifespan. The fact that there was some success as a result of the experiment is a hopeful sign, though.

One issue that might be a problem for some people is that healthy animals were exposed to the devil facial tumor disease during the experiment. A discussion about the ethics and value of deliberately producing a disease in a healthy animal would be a long one. I think it's an important topic to consider, however.

Efforts to manage the devils, such as the development of an immunotherapy, are ongoing, but remain in a research-and-development phase.

— David Pemberton, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

Tasmanian Devil Joeys

An Uncertain Future

The fact that healthy Tasmanian devils are present and reproducing in captivity gives us a safety net for the species. It also allows people to see the animals up close, which may promote public concern. Life in captivity isn't ideal for the animal, but captive animals are creating a population that could be released into the wild. The strategy won't be helpful if the released animals develop cancer, however.

A population analysis published in early 2018 reported that the population of Tasmanian devils is apparently still decreasing. Exact data isn't available, but some researchers say that the population has decreased by around 70% overall since DFTD first appeared and by around 90% in some areas. They say that the animal may be extinct in the wild in twenty to thirty years unless it's helped.

In certain areas the number of animals is currently not as bad as might have been expected due to an interesting phenomenon. The animals in the area are rarely living beyond the age of two due to the disease. The age of reproduction has decreased, however. Now females as young as one are having babies, which replace the older animals who have died.

Tasmanian devils have to survive road traffic and habitat loss. For small devils, predation by eagles or owls or by a quoll (another type of carnivorous marsupial) is a danger. Surviving devil facial tumor disease is the biggest problem for the devils, however. We need to find a way to overcome the disease. The Tassie devil may be a strange animal by human standards, but I think it's worth saving this unique member of the animal kingdom.

References

Tasmanian devil facts from the San Diego Zoo

Information about Tasmanian devils from the Save the Tasmanian Devil website (which is run by the Tasmanian government)

FAQs about Tasmanian devils from Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania

The major histocompatibility complex from Garland Science and the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Cell-mediated immunity from John W. Kimball (a retired Biology professor and textbook creator)

Tovar, C. et al. Regression of devil facial tumour disease following immunotherapy in immunised Tasmanian devils. Sci. Rep. 7, 43827; doi: 10.1038/srep43827 (2017).

DFTD information from the Transmissible Cancer group at the University of Cambridge

San Diego Zoo Global. (2018, February 12). Tasmanian devil populations continue to decline: Devil facial tumor disease poses ongoing risk for wild populations. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 13, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180212170015.htm

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Crampton

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      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks, Peggy. The current plight of the Tasmanian devil is sad. I hope the species can be saved. There is an ethical dilemma in many types of research involving animals. I'm glad that some progress is being made in dealing with the situation, but it's still a serious problem.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 

        6 months ago from Houston, Texas

        What an interesting article Linda! That National Geographic video near the top of your page was most informative. It is sad that a form of cancer that as yet has no cure may be the cause of this animal becoming extinct. Let us hope that does not happen and that more research will be able to solve that problem. As to infecting healthy animals in order to do the research...that will always be an ethical dilemma.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much.

      • profile image

        I AM DOING RESEARCHES 

        6 months ago

        This is well written. Good job!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        The International Union for Conservation of Nature says that the animals can be found throughout Tasmania. They are also found on Robbins Island off the northwest coast of Tasmania.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Natalie. It's interesting to hear that watching Taz caused you to investigate real Tasmanian devils. Like you, I hope immunotherapy proves to be an effective treatment for the animals.

      • Natalie Frank profile image

        Natalie Frank 

        8 months ago from Chicago, IL

        I have been interested in Tasmanian Devils ever since I watched Sat. morning cartoons as a kid. I know there has been criticism of the way they are portrayed, but I think kids have always found something endearing about Taz, and seeing it made me look up and learn about real Tasmanian Devils. It is sad that they are endangered especially since the disease is transmitted through what seems to be a normal mating behavior. Hopefully the immunotherapy will prove to be an effective treatment. Thanks for the article.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and the interesting information, Suhail. I have a similar point of view to you. Biologically, we are animals. We have the most advanced brain of any creature on the planet, but we are related to other animals. I think this is an important point for people to consider.

      • Suhail and my dog profile image

        Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

        8 months ago from Mississauga, ON

        Hi Linda,

        I love Tasmanian Devils, have watched several TV documentaries on them (more than any other animal except gray wolves, and elephants), and this article has both been an interesting and a saddening read.

        The religion I come from has been incorrectly associated with violence, but it isn't so. I was taught from the beginning that Humans are 'God's noblest of creations', but that all other animals have souls, that they have communities like humans, that we, humans, have a duty to them, and that no human will enter heavens if an animal suffered at his/her hands.

        Scientifically speaking, presence of wild animals is indicative of healthy ecosystem that also supports homo sapiens.

        Psychologically speaking, caring for animals comes from caring for humans. Both go hand in hand. Presence of animals and wildlife brings solace in the lives of many people.

        Economically speaking, wildlife is a good source of tourism that helps support and develop local economies.

        All I wanted to say is trying to save Tasmanian devils or any other animal that is at the verge of extinction makes good sense.

        Regards,

        Suhail and my dog K2

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Val. They are always interesting.

      • ValKaras profile image

        Vladimir Karas 

        8 months ago from Canada

        Linda--I respect your arguments coming from your love of animal kingdom and your deeper understanding of their role on this planet than my mindset can even begin to appreciate.

        While evolutionists might talk about "survival of the fittest"---which even includes the concept of an extinction---I prefer yapping about a "survival of the most conscious", which places homo sapiens in the top ranks of that race.

        I am even going a bit further in my own modest speculations in all these matters---as I envision those among us humans with a more evolved consciousness running a better chance of surviving the increasing challenges of stressful, polluted, and disharmonious world.

        Level of achieved consciousness is in reverse proportion to the level of our animalistic mental survivalism characterized by greed, fear, arrogance, territoriality, and other pearls of inhuman functioning.

        Thus, regardless of the sentiment we may harbor about animals, those edible and cute or those wild and ugly, the phenomenon of man on this planet somewhat changes the rules of the biological game. His essence of a spiritual, conscious, non-animal being changes everything.

        It has been proven time and time again that we can heal ourselves by the mere use of our minds, and I have my personal proofs of that. The course of progress on this planet is not about dragging behind us our animalistic roots but to separate ourselves from them.

        As for the medicines derived from animals, as we get more conscious we will be healthier and healthier, and in theory, we don't even need doctors at all, because our bodies are made to maintain, repair, and rejuvenate themselves on their own. Doctors are only boosting up those mechanisms in us, not doing any healing anyway.

        So, again, in my worldview as much as it includes animals, I don't see a point of wasting money and time on teaching a chimp to act like a man---but doing our best to find ways to stop man from acting like a chimp.

        However, all this is not to make your views "wrong" my friend---we are not playing that game of "right-wrong", we are just expressing our intellectual preferences, and I will always respect yours.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thanks for sharing your opinion, Val. I have a different opinion from you, as I’m sure you guessed, but I still appreciate your comment!

        One concern I have about deciding that the Tasmanian devil doesn't matter is the thought of where we draw the line about the right of an animal to survive and the need to help them. Do we say yes to the animals that we currently keep as pets or livestock or that make a useful product for us but no to similar animals that haven’t been domesticated or who aren’t eaten? Do we say yes to animals who appeal to some people because of their cuteness but no to those who are ugly by some people’s standards? Do we say yes to a gorilla because it shares ninety-eight percent of our DNA but no to a lemur, which is also a primate like the gorilla and us but shares fewer of our genes? Is there a percentage of gene similarity to us that makes an animal worth saving?

        The loss of animals could be a problem for us. Animals can give us new medicines, such as an important drug for nerve pain discovered in cone snails and medications based on components of snake venom, or they can help us to understand a process in our body better. They can also remove pests or carrion that attract pathogens or insects that affect our lives, as the Tasmanian devil does. They can provide food for other animals that many people consider to be valuable.

        Yes, an argument can be made for destroying pests that harm us. The allocation of funds for saving an animal species or the safety of visiting their habitat to help them can also be a problem. When saving an animal is possible, however, I think it should be attempted.

      • ValKaras profile image

        Vladimir Karas 

        8 months ago from Canada

        Linda---I probably deserve to be stoned by naturalists of the world, but my instincts are telling me that we don't need most of the species.

        If we think of the food chain in nature providing an excuse for their existence, let those religiously inclined folks think a little---if god created lions to prevent overpopulation of water buffalos, why did he bother creating water buffalos in the first place.

        O.K., I am a comedian too.

        So, when I hear how this or that species are at a verge of their extinction, my heart is not bleeding for them. As far as I care, we don't really need any crocs and poisoning snakes and sharks, to mention just these few. O.K. we don't need politicians either, and they will probably be the last to be extinct on this planet.

        Sorry, Linda, I know how much you care for animals, even these ugly Tasmanian Devils, but we should also make extinct lions and monkeys and poisonous snakes from our own, human nature---not to mention "devils" in some of us; so, as far as I care, whatever happens-happens to the Tasmanian one.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you very much for the comment, Peg. I think the joeys are cute. Even the adults hold some attractions for me. They are interesting animals. I hope they survive for their sake and for ours.

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 

        8 months ago from Dallas, Texas

        You pick the most interesting topics and this is no exception. I loved learning about the little Tasmanian Devil and its offspring. Sad to learn that they are facing such a difficult disease and hoping that research will lead to a cure that might also help other species like humans. Wonderful video on the joeys. :)

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Heidi. I thought of the Looney Tunes character as well but thought I shouldn't mention it in a science article! The fact that Tasmanian devils and humans are both mammals means that discoveries in the devils may help us. I hope that's the case.

        I hope you have a happy weekend as well, Heidi.

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        8 months ago from Chicago Area

        I thought of Looney Tunes depiction of the fierce and wild Tasmanian Devil when I saw the title. :) The real thing, of course, doesn't live up to that reputation.

        Definitely a species that needs our help! I hope they can find a solution to this cancer. In doing so, I wonder what researchers will discover about some of the tough cancers that humans are battling, too.

        Thanks for again sharing your knowledge of the natural world with us! Happy Weekend!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Bill. No, the animal generally isn't cuddly—though I have seen some videos in which it appears to be—but as you say, any endangered animal is a friend of mine!

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Devika. It's wonderful when we're able to save an endangered animal. I hope we can save the Tasmanian devil.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Mary. Yes, I think the knowledge gained by studying how Tasmanian devils respond to intruding cells may be helpful for us. We may learn something applicable to human biology. Thank you for the comment.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        8 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Not what I would call a cuddly animal, but any animal endangered is a friend of mine. Thank you for raising awareness.

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        8 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        It is such a miracle to save animals. You shared another informative and interesting hub. Lots to think about here on such researches.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        9 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        I have heard of these devils but have never seen one. I may not approve of some experimentation on animals but its contribution to Science and medicine is immense. In this case, we are trying to save these animals but the knowledge this will bring will also help us.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Hi, Flourish. I hope we can save the animals from extinction, too. The thought of them dying from such a horrible disease is very sad. Thanks for the comment.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        9 months ago from USA

        I enjoyed this very much and the videos help create an endearing picture of this endangered animal. In a way they are cute and I really do hate to see animals suffer, particularly starving to death. I’d like to think we can save them from extinction.

      • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Crampton 

        9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

        Thank you, Jackie. I always appreciate your kind comments!

      • Jackie Lynnley profile image

        Jackie Lynnley 

        9 months ago from The Beautiful South

        Might be one of my least favorite things but still I believe all are here for a reason and therefore should remain. Very interesting that they carry their young like a kangaroo and as always so informative, interesting and well done, Linda.

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