• Otávio Santiago

Gruesome cancer afflicting Tasmanian devils may be waning, a hopeful sign

For nearly a year since the first cases of COVID-19 ripped across the world, humanity has been talking about viruses. But for the past three decades, Tasmanian devils have been suffering from their own pandemic—a gruesome facial cancer that spreads through biting.

The Australian marsupial’s tumors cause cavernous mouth sores that eventually lead to starvation. And unlike nearly all other cancers, this form is contagious.

Devil facial tumor disease, as it’s called, has slashed the species’ population from 140,000 animals to around 20,000. It’s easily spread because the feisty animals often nip each other during breeding season or while scrapping over carcasses, their main source of food. (Related: Can Tasmanian devils beat cancer of the face?)

Many experts worry that if this pattern continues, the disease will eventually drive the species from endangered to extinct. In response, scientists have bred Tasmanian devils in captivity, and earlier this year, reintroduced 26 of the animals to mainland Australia. The 2.5-foot-long carnivores were once plentiful in the wild throughout Australia’s mainland and its island state of Tasmania; today, they’ve been reduced to the individuals living in Tasmania.

But a new study of the cancer’s genomics, published today in the journal Science, offers a rare bright spot: The disease’s infection rate among wild devils has declined greatly since it first emerged, suggesting that Tasmanian devils could coexist with the disease.

“This is potentially really exciting, because this means the disease is not racing through natural populations the way it used to,” says study leader Austin Patton, an evolutionary biologist at University of California, Berkeley. “It’s slowing down.”

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