Devil Facial Tumour Disease is a term used to describe a fatal condition in Tasmanian devils which is characterised by the appearance of obvious facial cancers. The tumours or cancers are first noticed in and around the mouth as small lesions or lumps. These develop into large tumours around the face and neck and sometimes even in other parts of the body. Adults appear to be most affected by the disease – males the first affected, then females. Badly affected devils may have many cancers throughout the body.
The Tasmanian Government has nominated the devil for listing as vulnerable under the State’s Threatened Species Act in response to field data indicating the devil population had dropped between 33 and 50 per cent from a 1990 peak of 130000.
This spectacular disease was first detected in far north east Tasmania in the mid 1990s. It has now been recorded over much of the eastern half on Tasmania and seems to be spreading. The apparent boundaries of the disease are not yet clearly known. The disease is fatal and effects the majority of devils. The infectious mechanism is not yet clear although infection rates suggest it is possibly highly infectious between devils. So far, the disease has only been detected in wild devils on the Tasmanian mainland. However, a disease with superficial similarities has been detected in wild koalas on mainland Australia and in cats and pigs.
A major investigation of the disease and its impacts on wild populations is currently underway. All the work being done is vital in identifying management strategies to ensure the ongoing survival of the Tasmanian devil.
If devil numbers continue to fall at the large rate indicated above, there is a concern it may lead to increased numbers of other non-native species such as feral cats and the fox, recently thought to be introduced to Tasmania. Mooney (2004, p34) says devils would normally act as a buffer against foxes through competition for carrion and predation on fox cubs.