Fatal Cancer Threatens Tasmanian Devil Populations

A voracious cancer threatens to wipe out an iconic Tasmanian species and destabilize the island's ecosystem. Can biologists trick the disease into taming itself? 

Menna Jones peered into a trap, and a Tasmanian devil peered back at her. Its gaze was somehow off. The devil’s face seemed misshapen, and its jaw was raw and red. Perhaps, she thought, the swelling was an infected wound. Many devils are torn up by the end of the breeding season, after a month of winning and defending mates.

Jones, a biologist at the University of Tasmania, was trying to decipher the social structure of the island’s iconic creature, the largest meat-eating marsupial in existence. Were the devils promiscuous, as many researchers suspected? Which ones were studly and prolific, and which ones were losing the reproductive race? This fellow was one of many helping Jones answer those questions in June 2001 at her study site on the Freycinet Peninsula, a crooked finger of land in eastern Tasmania.

Jones reached for a canvas sack, tipped the cage gently and shook the black, beagle-size animal into the bag. Then she sat on the ground, legs wrapped around the bagged animal. Gripping him firmly, she pulled the bag back to measure his head. It was a dance she’d performed hundreds of times, moving smoothly and predictably so the devils knew what to expect.

Sometimes after she released a devil, it stayed in her lap and sniffed the sunscreen on her arm or buried its furry face in her armpit to hide from the sun. Although this devil was new to her — he was at the neck of the peninsula, which she visited only once a year — she often trapped the same devils dozens of times over the years, watching them grow from tiny imps in their mothers’ pouches to the grizzled old age of about 5.

When she pulled the bag back from this devil’s face, her soothing ritual faltered. A mass obliterated his right eye and erupted into an oozing, red-and-black cauliflower across his cheek. Another swelling deformed his left cheek into a deceptive chipmunk-chubbiness...

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