Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick: Tasmanian Devil in Devil of a Pickle (for the Week of June 1, 2008)

May 29, 2008

Q. Dear Twig: We also talked in class about an animal called the Tasmanian devil. It's endangered. Why?

A. The short, awful truth: A weird new cancer. Only Tasmanian devils get it. People don't. Neither do other animals.

In just the past 10 years or so, Devil Facial Tumour Disease, DFTD for short, has spread among and killed nearly half (some say more) of Earth's Tasmanian devils. Nasty face and mouth tumors grow. Victims have a hard time eating. They starve and die in just a few months.

(Time out for background. Tasmanian devil: a marsupial carnivore. Lives nowhere else but Tasmania, an Australian island state. Looks like a small, burly dog. Black fur. Powerful jaws. And pointy sharp sticky-out teeth.)

"DFTD is extremely unusual as it is only one of three recorded cancers that can spread like a contagious disease," says the Web site of a group called Save the Tasmanian Devil. "The cancer is passed from devil to devil through biting."

Urgent rescue work goes on. Scientists aim, for instance, now to find, protect and breed healthy devils and also to study their genes for clues.

Call it insurance in case the ones in the wild all go extinct. Devils bred in captivity — strong, healthy, ideally resistant — could, if needed, be freed to help replace them.

Twig

P.S. Marsupials raise their young in a pouch — like, say, kangaroos do. Carnivores eat meat.

Notes:

Tasmanian devils lived on Australia's mainland, too, until about 600 years ago. Their now-small gene pool, scientists say, might be a cause of the bad, fast spread.

Listing the Tasmanian devil as endangered, done just last month, "qualifies it for greater government conservation assistance," says a Canadian Press story.

Tasmanian devils aren't dangerous to people. Their name, says the Save the Tasmanian Devil Web site ( http://www.tassiedevil.com.au/ ), comes from "early European settlers, who were haunted at night by the sound of (their) spine-chilling screeches and demonic growls."

They don't spin like tornadoes, either. Get too dizzy ...

About This:

"Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick," published by The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences — specifically, by the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and Ohio State University Extension, the research and outreach arms, respectively, of the College — is a weekly feature for children about science, nature, farming and the environment. It's written at, to and for a 4th-grade reading level.

For details, to ask Twig a question, and/or to receive the column free by mail or e-mail, contact Kurt Knebusch, CommTech, OSU/OARDC,1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691, knebusch.1@osu.edu, (330) 263-3776.

Online at http://extension.osu.edu/~news/archive.php?series=science.

Author(s): 
Kurt Knebusch