Clinic Stories

Tasmanian Tigers and Devils

Until the last known Tasmanian Tiger died in 1936, they were the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. Also known as the Thylacines, it looked like a wolf, had tiger like stripes on its back and was a fierce predator. It became extinct due to a combination of hunting, bounties, disease and loss of habitat. Unconfirmed sightings of Thylacines have continued until this day and preserved specimens make cloning a realistic possibility. Because of its recent extinction films, photographs, skins and stuffed specimens are plentiful and are as impressive as they are tragic. I encourage you to look them up.

With the demise of the Thylacines, the Tasmanian Devil became the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. This ferocious badger-like varmint thrived, their population flourishing. Then in 1996 they began dying of facial tumors that made it impossible for them to eat.

How did it happen? A female Devil got a malignant tumor on her face. Normally Devils hunt alone but when they have a large kill or with road kill they will fight over the carcass. They bite each other on the face opening wounds and the tumor cells were passed, first from the original Devil to others but now from many others. Because they are closely inbred they do not recognize the tumor as foreign tissue, even male Devils had female tumor cells growing on them.

Plentiful to the point of pest status 20 years ago, Tasmanian Devils are now endangered. There are several efforts to replenish their numbers. One breeds tumor resistant Devils. Another requires vaccinations over six months to develop resistance to the foreign cells. Success to date has been limited, in part because they have to be raised in captivity then released, but the programs are well funded by drug companies studying this unusual cancer.

Tasmanian Devils are not cute or cuddly, but they are powerful and fascinating and have been subjected to unique survival pressures. While not guaranteed, it appears that the efforts to save them from extinction will succeed.

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