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20 Jul 2019 11:30
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  •   Home > News > International

    Male Tassie devils hit hardest by second type of transmissible cancer

    Male Tasmanian devils are more commonly infected with devil facial tumour 2, which is putting even more pressure on the endangered species, a new study finds.

    Male Tasmanian devils are hardest hit by a second type of transmissible cancer, which is putting even more pressure on the endangered species, a new study has found.

    Devil facial tumour 2 (DFT2) was discovered in 2014 in devils from the d'Entrecasteaux region, in south-east Tasmania.

    The new study, published online in the journal Evolutionary Applications, is the first detailed look at the cancer's impact on wild animals, said co-author Rodrigo Hamede of the University of Tasmania.

    The disease is not a strain of the already well-known devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) that first hit Tassie devils over 20 years ago.

    "DFT2 is a completely independently evolved transmissible cancer happening in the same species," Dr Hamede said.

    But, he said, the presence of two transmissible cancers in the devils may push both cancers to evolve to be more aggressive.

    "[There is now] competition between the two tumour [types]."

    Tracking a cancer

    Dr Hamede and his colleagues collected samples from devils trapped at five locations in and around the d'Entrecasteaux region, as well as from roadkill devils in the area.

    Of the 350 devils trapped, 26 had devil facial tumour disease, a further 23 were diagnosed with the second cancer, and two devils were infected with both types of cancer.

    The two diseases had different impacts on the devils.

    While males and females are affected equally by devil facial tumour disease, males were infected at a far higher rate by the second disease.

    Another key difference is that a third of the DFT2 tumours were found on the animal's body rather than on the head, whereas only a few devil facial disease have ever been found away from the head.

    The fact that co-infection with both types of cancer was found in only two of the devils tested by the team may be because devils are likely to die before both cancers become visible, Dr Hamede said.

    "They may die more quickly because the cost of infection of both infections is high," he said.

    "And if they're dying quicker it's not good for devils."

    The disease is spread by animal bites. Each cancer type may grow faster to maximise its chance of being passed on to another devil before the infected animal dies.

    This in turn would increase the virulence of both cancers, Dr Hamede explained.

    When DFT2 was initially discovered in a population of eight devils, researchers thought the disease may remain confined to a few individuals, Dr Hamede said.

    But this research shows it has successfully spread to enough devils that it is likely to stay in the population, he said.

    While the outbreak seems to be constrained to the d'Entrecasteaux region it will likely spread, causing more strain on the already endangered species.

    What does this mean for the survival of the devil?

    While it may not be a comfort to male devils, the fact that female devils seem to be more resistant to the cancer is good for the species, as they give birth to future generations, Dr Hamede said.

    He said females may be more resistant to DFT2 because the cancer originated in a male, whereas devil facial tumour disease originated in a female.

    It was impossible to know exactly how the second cancer would affect devil populations, said Carolyn Hogg, a threatened species expert of the University of Sydney, who not involved in the study.

    But, Dr Hogg said, the outbreak of DFT2 was likely to make the Tassie devils more vulnerable to other threats such as road kill, habitat fragmentation and dog attacks.

    "Diseases will go through a population and the population will crash significantly, then it's all the other threatening processes that start to push them over the edge," she said.

    Dr Hogg said a strength of this study is that monitoring of DFT2 has been constant from the time the disease was detected.

    Devil facial tumour disease was not consistently monitored until a decade after it was first discovered.

    By tracking this cancer from its outbreak researchers will be better able to get a clear idea of how transmissible cancers start, and how transmission can be stopped, she said.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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