Tasmanian devils research shows the healthy are at risk

Tasmanian devils in their prime are most likely to be struck down with the deadly devil facial tumour disease, according to new research. 

The research, published in scientific journal Ecology Letters, by a team of Tasmanian, national and international researchers has shown that contrary to many infections, which target the young, old and weak of a species, the devil facial tumour disease is a greater risk to healthy devils. 

“It's more commonly thought that infectious disease attacks the weakest members of a population – for example, our annual flu epidemics are primarily a problem to the old and otherwise sick,” Griffith University researcher Hamish McCallum said.

“But this disease is a bit different. It shows that animals which are otherwise very "fit" (in the evolutionary sense) are exactly the ones that the disease takes out.”

This may be due to the devil’s social habits and the way the disease is transmitted from animal to animal. 

Devil facial tumour disease is one of only a few known transmissible cancers, and it is believed it is transmitted when devils bite each other. 

“It’s an important finding, as it indicates that the fittest devils, which are the ones typically engaging in mating or aggressive behaviour, are at highest risk to acquire tumours,” lead researcher from Griffith University Konstans Wells said.

The study also supported other recent research suggesting the devils were evolving an immunity to the disease, with the results from this study showing a decline in the likelihood a devil will become infected. 

About 30 devils are being captured from Maria Island and re-released in the state’s North East in May as part of the ongoing devil recovery program.