Saturday, November 10, 2007
Satan's flesh eaters
Tintarella and I were lucky enough to visit a research facility for Tasmanian Devils, and it was there that I took these photographs.
Satan's Flesh Eaters was the name that the European invaders first gave to the Devils. They were perceived as a threat to introduced livestock, and so a bounty was put on them. Keep in mind that, when you are decimating a population, not only are you removing individual creatures, you are also substantially reducing the gene pool of the species. We shall shortly see how bloody appalling that is.
Tasmanian Devils were finally protected in 1941, after the last Tasmanian Tiger had died.
But our Devils are not safe. In 1995 a previously unknown disease appeared. It is called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). It is 100% fatal. In ten years, the Devil numbers have halved.
Because the Devil population is genetically limited (only cheetahs are more genetically similar to one other) it is assumed that any Devil who contracts the disease will die. In a genetically varied population, some instances of disease resistance might be expected. And that might have led to a vaccination. Too bad.
DFTD is one of only three communicable cancers that are known. Why did it spring into life in 1995? Was it a mutation? And if so, what caused the mutation?
Okay. Here's the other thing. 1994 saw the beginning of a systematic scheme of laying a poison called 1080 (ten eighty). 1080 is a fox poison. Unfortunately, native Australian animals don't read labels. Foxes are carnivores. Devils are carnivores. There are some who believe that the poison contributed to the factors which produced DFTD. It certainly killed some Devils.
Do you want to hear the kicker? There aren't any foxes in Tasmania. But there is a lot of government money to be had for fox extermination. Last time the Tasmanian government considered ceasing grants for fox research / poisoning, a dead fox turned up. Good timing, Mr Reynard.
Here is a cute picture of two Devil pups just out of the den.
(Wiki has a good article on Devils, but before you go there please be aware that there is a distressing photo of a Devil with DFTD.)