The LA Times had a great article last weekend about Tasmanian devils, the mysterious facial cancer which is threatening to wipe them out, and the Bonorong wildlife preserve in Hobart which is involved in trying to rescue them.
The disease, called devil facial tumour disease, is terrible. It causes tumours on the devils' face and mouth, which eventually grow so large and painful that the animal starves to death. It's a cancer, but a very unusual one: it's transmissible and can pass from one devil to another, one of only three such cancers known. That means that unlike most cancers, tumour cells aren't from the infected animal itself; they're usually contracted from a bite from another devil.
Almost no Tasmanian devils are immune to DFTD. Being isolated for so long on such a small island, devils have little genetic diversity, so a disease that affects one devil is likely to affect all of them. It can wipe out a regional population within a year. A few individuals seem to have partial immunity, and scientists are desperately hunting for the secret before the disease wipes out the rest of the devil population. Organizations like Bonorong are breeding Tasmanian devils in captivity in case the answer comes too late to save the wild population.
When I was in Hobart in 2009 for Linux.conf.au (which, aside from being a great Linux conference, also raised over $35,000 to help save the devils), I had the chance to visit Bonorong. I was glad I did: it's fabulous. You can wander around and feed kangaroos, wallabees and the ever-greedy emus, see all sorts of rarer Australian wildlife like echidnas, quolls and sugar gliders, and pet a koala (not as soft as they look).
But surprisingly, the best part was the tour. I'm usually not much for guided tours, and Dave normally hates 'em. But this one was given by Greg Irons, the director of the park who's featured in the Times article, and he's fantastic. He obviously loves the animals and he knows everything about them -- Dave called him an "animal nerd" (that's a compliment, really!) And he's a great showman, with a lively and fact-filled presentation that shows each animal at its best while keping all ages entertained. If you didn't love marsupials, and particularly devils and wombats, before you come to Bonorong, I guarantee you will by the time you leave.
A lot of the accounts of devil facial tumour disease talk about devils fighting with each other and spreading the disease, but watching them feed at Bonorong showed that fighting isn't necessary. Tasmanian devils feed in groups, helping each other tear apart the carcass by all latching onto it at once and pulling. With this style of feeding, it's easy to get bitten in the mouth accidentally.
Of course, I have a lot more photos from Bonorong:
Wildlife Park photos.
[ 10:48 Apr 01, 2011 More travel/tasmania | permalink to this entry | ]