It would appear to be one heck of a public relations challenge: Persuade the Australian public to care about a seldom-seen animal the size of a cocker spaniel, beady-eyed, standoffish and fond of displaying a mouthful of pointy teeth. Picture a skunk, with the jaws of an alligator and the charm of a weasel.
From a marketing standpoint, the Tasmanian devil is no koala.
But the pugnacious carnivore needs help. Scientists across Australia are working to untangle the genetic puzzle behind a fatal disease decimating the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial. The affliction is straight out of a sci-fi movie: Tumors sprout around the devil’s mouth, quickly morphing into bulbous red pustules that eventually take over the animal’s entire face, leaving it unable to eat or drink.
Alarmed by the threat to a species already on the brink of extinction, wildlife biologists here began tracking the disease 15 years ago. Early on, they identified how it spread: through facial bites when devils fight or mate. The disease had all the characteristics of a virus. But last year geneticists made a sobering discovery. Devil facial tumor disease, or DFTD, was no virus, but a highly infectious cancer — one of only three communicable cancers known to medicine.
That breakthrough piqued the interest of scientists. Though researchers say it is unlikely that humans could become infected with DFTD, the knowledge gleaned in research across Australia could prove invaluable should an infectious cancer appear among people.
Now, in ways that surprise even themselves, Australians are rallying around this nasty, screeching beast that once was the most reviled animal in the country.
Even if relatively few Australians have taken the time to see a devil at a zoo, and even fewer have spied one in the bush, they are getting the message: It may be a devil, but it’s our devil. They’re “a little Aussie fighter,” suggested Kathy Belov, a molecular geneticist at the University of Sydney working to save the marsupial.
“There’s something really adorable about little devils,” she said.