February 8, 2008
Posted: 04:15 PM ET
Say the words “Tasmanian Devil” and for a lot of us, the edgy but lovable cartoon character “Taz” comes to mind.
Hammy, a healthy Tasmanian Devil, has the face of a bear, the size of a small dog, and a bone-chilling screech.
Photo courtesy: Dr. Hannah Bender
But the “real” devils, known for big teeth and loud screeches, are in grave danger of extinction from a deadly form of facial cancer.
Scientists are trying to make sure the snarky cartoon character isn’t the only image future generations have of the icon of Tasmania.
“It’s a very unusual mode of tumor transmission,” said Elizabeth Murchison, a native Tasmanian and molecular biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York. A team of researchers at CSHL is studying Devil Face Tumor Disease, which was first identified in 1996.
This cancer spreads when one infected animal scratches or bites another, passing on the deadly cells. The tumors grow aggressively on the face and neck; eventually they become so large the animal cannot eat and dies of starvation.
On some parts of the island of Tasmania, south of Australia, more than 90% of the devil population has been wiped out.
Murchison and her colleagues are sequencing the genes in the devils’ tumors, to better understand the genetic makeup of this rapid cancer growth.
“Everyone in Tasmania is passionate about the animal, it is part of our identity,” said Murchison. “We have a big responsibility to keep it in its natural habitat.”
Australian veterinarian Hannah Bender, also working at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, is investigating why the cancer spreads so rapidly.
“One theory is that the population is incredibly inbred, “ she said. That means the devil’s immune system doesn’t recognize the cancer cells as foreign, and does nothing to try to fight them off.
“We have to look at this as a chance for modern molecular biology to help in an environmental catastrophe,” said Greg Hannon, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory professor.
So future generations won’t only know this noisy nocturnal marsupial from pictures in a textbook.
(Full disclosure: “Taz” is a Warner Brothers creation; CNN is owned by Time Warner.)
The Tasmanian Government and the University of Tasmania are working to save the Tasmanian Devil. Find out more here.
Click here to hear the bone-chilling screech of the Tasmanian devil. Its howl could also speak for more than 5000 endangered animal species worldwide.
Marsha Walton, Producer, CNN Sci-Tech
Filed under: tasmanian devils
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