Hopes revive for saving Tasmanian devil from extinction

January 1st, 2010 - 2:06 pm ICT by IANS  

Sydney, Jan 1 (DPA) Hopes were renewed Friday that the Tasmanian devil could be saved from extinction after Australian researchers picked the genetics of the deadly facial tumours afflicting the world’s largest surviving marsupial carnivore.
The cancer, which passes among the notoriously cantankerous animals when they scrap during the mating season or in fights over food, has killed off 60 percent of the population since it was first reported in 1996.

“We looked at biological data from biopsies and determined which genes were switched on in the tumours,” University of Tasmania biologist Greg Woods told the public broadcaster ABC.

“From that, we identified a genetic signature of the tumour,” he said. “When we compared this genetic signature to other normal tissue, we found that it was most like cells called Schwann cells.”

Woods worked with fellow Australians and with research colleagues in the United States to unlock the genetic origin of the cancer.

The devils are now only found on the Australian island of Tasmania - hence their name - and their days are numbered unless a cure is found for the fast-developing cancer.

Healthy animals are being shipped from their island home to sanctuaries on the mainland in a last-ditch attempt to make sure the dog-like species survives the cancer.

There are fewer than 100,000 left in Tasmania, and the wild population could be gone in 50 years if the disease goes unchecked.

Devils delight tourists with their noisy and violent competitions for carcasses they find.

The species is at such risk that some biologists have advocated reintroducing Tasmanian devils into the wild elsewhere on the continent.

David Lindenmayer, an ecologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, said he thinks the dispersal plan has merit.

“There’s a lot of science involved, there’s a lot of thinking involved and there’s a lot of work involved to get it right,” Lindenmayer said. “It’s a reasonable idea to think about putting Tasmanian devils back onto mainland Australia because they were there up to very recently.”

The devil lost out to dingoes and wild dogs on the mainland just a couple of hundred years ago but managed to hold its own in Tasmania.

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