Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease - FAQs
1. What is Devil Facial Tumour Disease?
Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) 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 have many cancers throughout the body.
As the cancers develop in affected devils, they find it hard to ingest food.
The animal weakens further making it difficult to compete with other animals
for food. Affected animals appear to die within three to five months of the
lesions first appearing, from starvation and the breakdown of body functions.
2. Do you treat the Devil Facial Tumour Disease in individuals?
Treatment for individuals has not yet been trialled for the following reasons:
- Initially we needed to make the best use of available resources by
investing time in the study of the disease.
- Most importantly, if a cure for this disease is found, we need to
be able to use it from a wildlife management point of view rather than on
individual animals - we want to keep the devils wild and in the wild.
- Surgery and chemotherapy would be difficult, if not impossible, to
implement from a population point of view. Nevertheless, nothing is ruled out
that may help to save the devil, and research is proposed to investigate the
possibility and feasibility of cancer treatment for devils in some limited
3. Can Devil Facial Tumour Disease spread to other animals?
The Mount Pleasant Laboratories, in Launceston, are the only animal health
laboratories in Tasmania, and handle all cases concerning farmed and wild
animals. To date, they have found no evidence of Devil Facial Tumour Disease in
The Program's field team trapping surveillance has caught many species that
showed no clinical signs of the disease. Species include possums, quolls, cats
and even a sausage dog.
4. Are Tasmanian devils endangered?
In May 2009, the Australian Government listed the Tasmanian devil as Endangered
under national environmental law. It is also listed as Endangered under the
Tasmanian Government's Threatened Species Protection Act 1995. And the
Tasmanian devil has been listed as Endangered on the Red List of the
International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
- the benchmark for the global conservation status of plant and animal species.
In the mid 1990s, the first signs were observed of the fatal and infectious
cancer, Devil Facial Tumour Disease. Sightings of the Tasmanian devil have
since declined by more than 80%. As at October 2009, DFTD can be found at 64
locations across more than 60% of the State. In September 2006, Devil Facial
Tumour Disease was gazetted under the Animal Health Act 1995 as a List B
5. Could the devil facial tumours be caused by an accumulation of exposure
to the UV rays radiating through our ozone depleted skies?
There is no evidence to date that this is the case. It's true that there is
growing evidence to suggest that squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanomas
are initiated by solar damage. Also, osteosarcoma of large breed dogs is
thought to be initiated or promoted by repetitive trauma.
Animals in parks and zoos (including those in Tasmania) are less
"shy" and do sunbake. But there has been no evidence to date to
suggest that Devil Facial Tumour Disease has spontaneously arisen in captive
populations. We have also not had cases of melanomas or SCCs.
Neoplasms initiated/promoted from trauma and UV damage usually occur as a
result of having a degree of chronicity of exposure. There was support for this
hypothesis when it was found that older animals were initially the only ones
affected by the disease (three to four year olds), however it has now been
shown that one to two year olds are affected. We have found evidence supporting
our theory that the disease is acting as a contagious allograft - a
"parasite" in effect.
6. How do Tasmanian devils catch Devil Facial Tumour Disease?
Trials are under way to examine the transmission of Devil Facial Tumour
Disease. Preliminary results support the increasingly accepted hypothesis that
we are dealing with a transmissible cancer and that cancerous cells are passed
directly between devils as an allograft. Put more simply, we are getting more
evidence to support the theory that DFTD is spread by the cancer cells
themselves being passed from one animal to another.
7. If Devil Facial Tumour Disease is a form of cancer, how can it be
Devil Facial Tumour Disease is extremely rare. It is one of only three recorded
cancers that can spread like a contagious disease.
Under normal circumstances cancer cannot be "caught". The cancer
cells from one individual are completely different to another individual, and
when transferred should be rejected by the immune system. So the fact that DFTD
breaks this rule raises many questions about the immune system of the Tasmanian
Researchers at the Menzies Research Institute, led by A/Prof Greg Woods,
confirmed that blood sample analysis shows that Tasmanian devils have a fully
functional immune system.)
The devil-to-devil transmission suggests that this cancer is similar to a
transplant - but rather than a transplant of a life-saving organ, such as a
heart or kidney, the transplant is a life-threatening cancer.
Further laboratory tests investigated whether the Tasmanian devil has the
correct genes to allow recognition of foreign cells. This was performed by
mixing lymphocytes (the key cell in the immune system) from many devils to see
if they reacted to each other. The results from these studies clearly showed
that Tasmanian devils failed to recognise cells from other devils as different.
This provides strong evidence that a lack of genetic diversity contributes to
the cancer being infectious. When a healthy devil is infected with DFTD from
another animal, the infected devil's immune system assumes that the new cancer
cells are the same as its own cells and fail to reject them.
The daunting task ahead is to learn how to persuade the devil's immune system
to recognise the cancer cells as hostile infectious agents, which will then
alert the devil's immune system to destroy these cancer cells.
8. If there are still thousands of Tasmanian devils left in the wild, then
how can they be classified as ‘endangered'?
There has been a decline across Tasmania of more than 80% in average sightings
per spotlighting survey since DFTD emerged. In the north-east region, where
signs of the disease were fi rst reported, there has been a 95% decline
(approximately) of average sightings.
Due to its alarming rate of decline, the Tasmanian devil has been listed as
Endangered under Tasmania's Threatened Species Protection Act 1995, as well as
the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
1999. The Tasmanian devil has also been listed as Endangered on the Red List
the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources
(IUCN) - the benchmark for the global conservation status of plant and animal
It's hard for us to know exactly how many Tasmanian devils remain in the wild,
but our best estimate is between 20,000 - 50,000 mature individuals (which is
assumed to be about half the overall number). One of the reasons why it's
difficult to be more precise is that there are population number estimates for
a few places across the State. Good estimates for anywhere in the World
Heritage Area, for instance, aren't available because there are no roads and
it's hard to check traps on a daily basis. As with all our information, we are
reviewing these figures as we learn more, so they may change.
9. Why is it so important that Tasmanian devils don't become extinct in the
We are already seeing the early signs of changes in the landscape from the
decreasing devil population, impacting on our agricultural industries as well
as our environment.
The decline in devil numbers means there are now large amounts of surplus
carrion in the landscape (up to 100 tonnes/day) - and other carnivores are
already responding to that surplus. One of the biggest threats is posed by
introduced, invasive species - such as feral cats and dogs - which now have an
opportunity for major expansion.
Most significant of all is the fox threat that is facing Tasmania. Devils have
probably previously acted as a buffer to fox establishment in Tasmania. With
their decline, that measure of protection for the State is drastically reduced.
A fully established fox population would prey on at least 70 vertebrate
species, directly endangering seven. In short, the annual cost to the Tasmanian
economy of the fox establishing here would be up to $20 million. This figure
includes the on-going damage to our ecology, primary industries, eco-tourism
10. Is Devil Facial Tumour Disease and the Platypus Mucormycosis disease in
Tasmania related or caused by the same thing?
No. While affected devils and platypus can suffer from similar external
symptoms (both can develop ugly ulcers or lesions), the diseases are caused by
completely different mechanisms, and occur on different parts of the body.
Diseased devils suffer from facial tumours, while the lesions on diseased
platypus are generally around the tail, back or back legs.
Devil Facial Tumour Disease is an infectious cancer, where malignant growths or
tumours are caused by abnormal and uncontrolled cell division. DFTD is
contagious and thought to be spread by infected devils biting other devils.
There is currently no evidence that the disease has spread to other species of
wildlife or domestic animals.
Mucormycosis, the disease affecting Tasmanian platypus populations, is caused
by the fungus Mucor amphibiorum. Currently little is known about how the fungus
is transferred between platypuses, how it is spread, or what impacts it is
having. DFTD has had a devastating effect on devil populations throughout
Tasmania in just over a decade since it was fi rst detected. However in the 25
years since Mucormycosis was first detected in Tasmania we still don't know
what impact it is having on platypus populations, or how far it has spread.
These questions are being addressed in a research program within Tasmania's
Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. Read more about
Mucormycosis and the platypus conservation program.
FAQs Devil Facial Tumour Disease.pdf (64 kb)