In 1996 the first case of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) was spotted in the North-East of Tasmania. What followed was a relentless onslaught upon Tasmanian Devils as their population decreased as quickly as the disease spread. The worst was feared for the species who by 2016 was playing dangerously with extinction as 90% of their populations had been wiped out in places. Yet researchers believe there may be hope in saving the Tasmanian Devil.
A new study published in Nature Communications has revealed evidence showing Tasmanian Devils may be evolving a resistance to the cancer. By using tissue samples from 360 devils, scientists looked for genes that may have been altered since the arrival of DFTD. They then compared the results between populations of devils before DFTD arrived and then 8 – 16 years after it had arrived.
The researchers found that in all three populations they studied, two genetic regions in their DNA had changed in response to DFTD. Not only were five genes in these regions linked to cancer in other mammals suggesting that the Tasmanian devils are likely to be evolving a resistance to the disease, but these adaptations in their DNA had happened over an immensely short time frame. A mere four to eight generations since the outbreak. This rapid evolution generally requires pre-existing genetic variation, something which Tasmanian Devils do not possess as they have low levels of genetic diversity.
“Our results suggest that devils in the wild may save themselves through evolution,” the authors write. “However, it is essential for managers to develop strategies that help the devils do so. For example, releasing fully susceptible devils that have had no exposure to the disease into populations where resistance is developing is likely to be counterproductive.”
The potential for resistance to disease is definitely good news however as the disease has spread across 95% of Tasmania, decimating populations as it goes. This is not only threatening the Tasmanian Devil with extinction but has upturned local ecosystems through the loss of their apex predators. The large die-off of devils has allowed feral cats and invasive species to become more prevalent in areas which in turn has led to declines in native species.
Featured Image by San Diego Zoo
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