Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Tasmanian Devils' best hope for survival could rest on being less ferocious

updated 3:22 AM EDT, Tue September 4, 2012
The population of Tasmanian Devils has declined by over 60% since the mid-1990s.
The population of Tasmanian Devils has declined by over 60% since the mid-1990s.
  • Cancer spread through biting is threatening wild population of Tasmanian Devils
  • New study found most aggressive were most likely to contract disease
  • Currently no treatment for Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD)
  • Estimates of 60% decline of wild population since DFTD discovered

(CNN) -- Taking the devilish element out of one of Australia's most iconic but endangered animals could save it from extinction.

Evolving to be less aggressive could be the best hope for saving Tasmanian Devils in the wild, suggest scientists from the University of Tasmania, in a new study.

The species is facing extinction from Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), an infectious cancer that is spread by the animals biting each other. It is believed that the cancer has wiped out over 60% of the animals since it was first discovered in 1996.

While the animals are solitary they are social and meet regularly either during mating, establishing social hierarchies, or when feeding around carcasses. On all occasions they bite each other.

We found the more aggressive devils, rather than being super-spreaders are super-receivers of the cancer.
Rodrigo Hamede, University of Tasmania

However, the recent study led by Rodrigo Hamede, published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Animal Ecology, led to the surprising discovery that the less a Tasmanian Devil gets bitten the more likely it is to become infected with the cancer.

"Our results --- that devils with fewer bites are more likely to develop DFTD --- were very surprising and counter-intuitive," he said.

"In most infectious diseases there are so-called super-spreaders, a few individuals responsible for most of the transmission. But we found the more aggressive devils, rather than being super-spreaders are super-receivers."

Over a period of four years, Hamede and his research team studied the animal at two locations in Tasmania and discovered that most of the tumors found on Tasmanian Devils were located in their mouths.

"This means that more aggressive devils do not get bitten as often, but they bite the tumors of the less aggressive devils and become infected," explained Hamede.

There is currently no vaccine or treatment for DFTD and once infected Tasmanian Devils do not live much longer than six months.

One of the study sites -- West Pencil Pine in western Tasmania -- was less badly hit by the disease, leading Hamede to feel hopeful that further research there could aid the survival of the species.

"Firstly, we need to explore the genetic differences that might be lessening the impact of DFTD in the West Pencil Pine devil population," said Hamede.

"Second, we need more detailed data on devil behavior to define 'shy' or 'bold' types. We could then use this information to develop a management strategy to reduce the spread of the disease by boosting natural selection of less aggressive, and therefore more resilient, devils."

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:30 PM EST, Sun January 20, 2013
Patricia Wu looks at efforts to combat food waste in Hong Kong.
updated 9:33 PM EST, Sun January 13, 2013
CNN's Pauline Chiou goes to Hong Kong's annual toy fair to find out about the growing market for eco-friendly toys.
updated 11:15 PM EST, Sun December 30, 2012
CNN's Liz Neisloss reports on a roof that is only a sample of the greening of Singapore's skyline.
updated 9:16 PM EST, Tue December 18, 2012
A dam project in Cambodia could destroy livelihoods and ecosystems, says Conservation International
updated 10:22 PM EST, Mon December 17, 2012
Shipping lines, port authorities and technology companies are taking the initiative to go green and reduce costs.
updated 9:06 PM EST, Sun December 9, 2012
Less than 20 miles from Singapore's skyscrapers is a completely different set of high-rise towers.
updated 6:04 AM EST, Thu December 6, 2012
The Pitcairn Islands might only have 55 human inhabitants, but the waters surrounding them are teeming with marine life.
updated 10:22 PM EST, Sun December 2, 2012
Biofuel made from sugar cane waste in Brazil could revolutionize the global energy industry.
updated 9:58 PM EST, Sun November 25, 2012
Many believe that fuel-cell cars will overtake electric vehicles in the near future.
updated 3:20 AM EST, Mon November 19, 2012
Modern and sustainable buildings in the UAE are taking cues from an ancient Arabic design tradition.
updated 11:09 PM EST, Sun November 11, 2012
One man's artistic vision is distracting divers from Cancun's threatened underwater ecosystem.
updated 12:46 PM EST, Mon November 12, 2012
Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake, has been plagued by water hyacinth plants for over two decades.
A turtle on Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Just how much are natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef worth in monetary terms?