The Tasmanian Devil of Looney Toons fame is based on a real marsupial carnivore, well-known for its aggressiveness and fierceness, found on the Australian island of Tasmania. The existence of the Tasmanian devil is under threat, not by hunting or loss of habitat, but because of a rare type of contagious cancer. Tasmanian devils are dying from face and mouth tumors, a cancer that they spread among themselves through biting.
Transmissible cancer is very rare in the animal world. According to experts, there are only two other known forms of cancer that can be passed from one individual to another, found in dogs and clams. This type of cancer was first discovered in Tasmanian devils in 1996. It has become widespread throughout Tasmania, and the devil has been listed as an endangered species since 2008.
Recently, scientists have found a second type of transmissible cancer among the Tasmanian devil population that is genetically different from the first form. This new cancer also causes tumors of the face and is spread by biting, and has so far been found in a small number of devils on the island.
Researchers are interested in understanding why the devils seem to be so susceptible to contagious cancer. Is this a case of extremely bad luck for this particular species, or is this type of cancer more common than was previously thought? Conservationists are more concerned than ever about the plight of the Tasmanian devil, now that a second type of transmissible cancer has been discovered.
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