Image about Tasmania

The Tasmanian devil is not just an imaginary character in a Looney Tunes cartoon - it's a very real creature. And it's in very real danger of being wiped out.
Illustration by Gina Triplett and Matt Curtius.

IF YOU'VE EVER seen one of the Warner Bros. cartoons in which the slobbering, whirling, snarling Tasmanian devil is chasing Bugs Bunny, you may have a rather difficult time imagining that the real Tasmanian devil (yes, there is such an animal) could be vulnerable. A little on the slow side (mentally) and perhaps not much of a match for the wily Bugs Bunny, maybe, but vulnerable? No. Unfortunately, in the very real (and wild) world of the devil, a mysterious, disfiguring cancer called devil facial tumor disease is decimating the breed. Some experts fear that if it can't be stopped within a decade, Tasmania's top predator may exist only in captivity - and in the cartoons. Not only is this bad news for the devils, it could also entirely upset the natural balance of Tasmania, an island state off the southeastern coast of Australia.

"It's a disease that's extremely strange and unusual, and it's having a devastating effect," says Elizabeth Murchison, PhD, a native Tasmanian who's studying the disease's genetics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. "If the devils die out, it will be a catastrophe for the ecosystem."

Because of this threat, an international effort is now under way to save the animal. Qantas Airways has airlifted devils to safety and set up collection stations in airports. Warner Bros. is also helping, using a new campaign called Looney Tunes to the Rescue to raise money: The company sells new DVD collections and then donates $1 from every sale to Tasmanian devil research. The University of Tasmania has launched the Tasmanian Devil Appeal to raise funds for research on all aspects of the disease, and the state wildlife department has created an entire program devoted to tracking the disease and devising ways to stop it. More than 100 scientists worldwide are scrambling to figure out the biology and genetics of both the devil and the disease that threatens it. Even schoolchildren have pitched in, collecting change across Australia to help fund the research.

This outpouring is the result of more than just the appeal of a cartoon character, though. It's also due to the fact that scientists have recognized Tasmania's ecosystem as one of the world's most unusual. The island's isolation led the British to make it Australia's largest penal colony in the nineteenth century. While that convict past lies far behind, Tasmania's remoteness has in modern times preserved it as a natural oasis, a place of pink granite, azure water, and eucalyptus forests. It boasts the cleanest air in the world. Nearly 44 percent of the state - which is about the size of Ireland - has been protected in UNESCO World Heritage areas, national parks, and other reserves.

Many animal and plant species that have disappeared elsewhere still live on this island: the flightless Tasmanian native hen, the eastern quoll, the eastern barred bandicoot, and, of course, the Tasmanian devil. As recently as 400 years ago, the Tasmanian devil may have roamed the Australian continent. But when humans introduced nonnative animals like dingoes, foxes, and feral cats to the country, those newcomers eradicated the devils and many other species from the mainland. The Bass Strait, 150 miles of shallow, turbulent water, shielded Tasmania, though, and the devils survived there, as did many other species, leading some to call Tasmania a living museum.

The Tasmanian devil rules at the top of the island's natural system. While a predator and a fierce fighter when provoked, it bears little resemblance to its animated counterpart. No one is really sure exactly how the cartoon character Taz originated. Some theorize that it may have been an inspiration of Errol Flynn, a native Tasmanian and a 1930s star of such movies as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). His father, T.T. Flynn, was a professor who did some of the first studies of the Tasmanian devil's biology. "One story is that a producer from Warner Bros. saw a devil in a traveling zoo," says Nick Mooney, a wildlife biologist for Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment. "The animal was driven crazy by confinement and was racing around in its cage, sort of like in the cartoon."

The real animal is not brown but black and has irregular blazes of white. And it doesn't usually run slobbering after rabbits. Rather timid, devils keep to themselves, coming together only to mate or to bicker over the remains of a carcass. About the size of a small dog, like a corgi or an English bulldog, they have broad heads with powerful jaws and teeth for scavenging or hunting small mammals such as wallabies and wombats. They're not nearly as noisy or blustery as the cartoon Taz is, but at night, they let out haunting screams. Those piercing calls, the legend goes, inspired early settlers to call them devils.

"There's nothing else like them in the world," says Steven Smith, PhD, manager of the state's Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease Program. "There's a marsupial lion in the fossil record. And there was a marsupial tiger, the thylacine, which went extinct in 1936. So the devil is now the world's largest marsupial carnivore. Most other meateating marsupials are the size of mice. So the devils are giants."

Gradually, the animal that locals call the Tassie devil has become an informal state symbol, a mascot for sports teams, and a focus for hometown sentiment and tourism promotion. "In Tasmania, you just have devils around," explains Murchison, the genetic researcher. "It's just something we all grew up with."

Because Tasmanian devils were once as common in Tasmania as raccoons are in many American states, no one was really monitoring them and keeping an eye out for trouble. Then, in 1996, a wildlife photographer working in the state's northeast area observed devils with strange lesions on their faces. He reported the finding to wildlife officials, and at the time, authorities weren't too concerned. Since devils usually fight by biting around the head, it's not unusual to see one with a scruffy face. Then, in 2002, biologists started seeing more devils with facial sores, and not just in the northeast - there were affected animals in the northern Midlands, hundreds of miles away. The scientists began to realize that they were dealing with an infectious disease and that it was spreading quickly.

Once stricken, animals develop large, grotesque facial tumors, and within months, they die of starvation and organ failure. In the northeast, where the photographer first noticed sick animals, the number of devil sightings has decreased by almost 90 percent. Across Tasmania, the total population of devils has declined by 50 percent, earning the animal a place on the state's threatened- species list. As of late 2006, scientists had plotted sightings of diseased animals across 59 percent of the state's area, and only a wide swath of craggy, densely vegetated territory along the western coast remained free of the disease.

Biologists say that animals seldom go extinct solely because of an illness. In the case of the Tasmanian devil, here's the rub: These marsupial carnivores seem to have absolutely no natural resistance to the new disease. For some reason, the devils' immune systems don't react to the invading cells. The tumor disease, therefore, eventually kills every devil it infects.

"The tumor appears to be a cancer, a cancer that can transplant itself from devil to devil. When the animals bite each other, they inject cancer cells into a new host. It appears to be the same cell line that jumps from host to host," explains Murchison. "This is extremely unusual. The only other known case is in dogs [canine venereal transmittable sarcoma], and that cancer doesn't kill the dogs."

It's not clear exactly how urgent the threat is: Some predict that the Tasmanian devil could disappear from the wild in 10 years; others give a more cautious estimate of 25 years. But scientists do agree on the need for action.

"We don't have time to wait; we have to do things now. There are only 11 marsupial carnivores in the world, and the only place they exist in a natural assemblage is Tasmania," says Menna Jones, PhD, a University of Tasmania ecologist who has studied the devil for 17 years. "Now, from sheer bad luck, the devil is going down. At the same time, there's the unfortunate coincidence that foxes recently have been introduced to Tasmania. The fox numbers are still low, but if the devils disappear and foxes take their place, there are six other species that will almost certainly go extinct, like the eastern quoll and the Tasmanian bettong, a small rat kangaroo. The whole ecosystem will go out of balance. The vegetation will change. The devils are an important, functional species."

The scientific response has grown exponentially since the threat of the disease became clear. A recent forum on the problem attracted 90 scholars, most from Australia and New Zealand, but a few from Europe and the United States. Some of the scholars are working on creating a vaccine. Others are trying to devise a diagnostic blood test. (Currently, the only way to tell if devils are sick is to observe tumors.) Still others are exploring ideas about possibly fencing off the healthy population of devils or relocating some of them to uninhabited Tasmanian islands. In the meantime, wildlife biologists are monitoring populations with surveys and cameras, trying to identify and remove diseased animals from the wild.

Just in case these long-term research avenues end up being a dead end, biologists have developed "insurance" - captive populations of devils. Forty-eight were airlifted by Qantas to the mainland, and another intake from the wild is planned soon. If Tasmanian devils do disappear from the wild, these colonies could be used to reintroduce the animals into their native habitat. Scientists hope to preserve 95 percent of the devils' genetic diversity within these captive colonies, because the more genetic variety a group of animals has, the greater their continued chance of survival is.

"The good news is that we now have protected, captive devils," says Smith, who coordinates the state efforts. "The bad news is that [the disease] is lethal, and we can't stop it from spreading."