Tasmanian devils: Devil coast

By Ian Connellan 25 November 2009
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In the desperate race to stop a new cancer from wiping out Tasmanian devils, an expedition financed by an Australian Geographic Society fundraiser has found cause for hope on a remote, windswept coast.

‘Skinny boy’ is back. The three-year-old Tasmanian devil is a serial offender. Thin and hungry, he’d been among the first devils trapped last March during the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s (TMAG) field trip to the remote coast south of Cape Sorell, halfway up Tasmania’s west coast. And here he is the very next day, again at the wrong end of a metre-long PVC tube trap.

“He has this big open wound, from under his chin right down his chest,” says scientific officer Billie Lazenby, as she peers down at Skinny Boy in the upended trap while wriggling her hands into disposable latex gloves. “Yesterday it had this yucky flap of skin hanging off it. He’d most likely have gotten it fighting.”

With help from fellow researcher Brian Looker, Billie slides Skinny Boy into a fresh hessian bag, which she carries to where veterinarian Jemma Bergfeld is pulling on her disposable gloves. Brian, meanwhile, wanders away with the empty trap and dons his elbow-length rubber gloves and starts thoroughly cleaning the trap with water, brushes and an industrial-strength disinfectant named Virkon.

All these gloves and cleanliness hint at the reason the TMAG team is here, on this rarely visited stretch of coast. The devils here have never been studied, but mere zoological curiosity wouldn’t have got the helicopter flying here. It was Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). This deadly, transmissible cancer – responsible for rapidly wiping out three-quarters of devils in areas where it’s found – has invaded about two-thirds of Tasmania. But, it seems, it isn’t here. Not yet. None of the devils trapped so far on this trip has shown signs of the disease.

Softly spoken and reassuringly gentle with her marsupial charge, Billie settles down on the sandy track beside Jemma, who is preparing her tools of trade – needles and phials for collecting blood samples. Billie positions Skinny Boy so that Jemma can extract her samples. He isn’t the first devil recaptured on the 10 km long line of 40 traps, and won’t be the last, according to team leader David ‘Doozie’ Pemberton.

“A lot of animals are incredibly wary of traps,” Doozie says. “Some  just can’t be trapped. Devils, however… they’re probably the most trap-happy animals I’ve studied.”

Once Billie and Jemma have the blood samples they start examining Skinny Boy’s wound, a fist-sized patch of raw flesh on his chest. “There’s no sign of infection,” Jemma says. “For such a big wound it looks really good. I reckon he’ll be fine.”

Billie shuffles to the side of the track and releases Skinny Boy, who darts into the dense heath. “It’s great to hear Jemma say he’ll probably be okay,” she says. “Yesterday, when the wound looked much nastier, I was thinking what a nice change it was to be looking at a devil that had a normal problem.”

Death by starvation

Devil Facial Tumour Disease has changed most people’s ideas of what’s ‘normal’ for devils. For most of the past 200 years devils have generally been reviled rather than revered. Like thylacines, they were inaccurately thought to be destroyers of livestock, indiscriminately savage, satanically fierce… Over time, myths such as these took root and flourished into ‘they say’ truths (AG 70).

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Devil Facial Tumour Disease View Gallery

It’s certainly normal for devils to have wounds. They sometimes bite during fights over food, and when mating the male holds the female’s neck in his jaws. While unpleasant, this behaviour, and its inevitable sores and scars, was always considered nothing to worry about. Then, a decade ago, when the Tasmanian devil population was said to be at a historical high point of perhaps 150,000 animals, Dutch wildlife photographer Christo Baars took several pictures of devils with grotesquely disfigured faces at Mount William National Park, in Tasmania’s north-east. Christo later took the shots to zoologist Nick Mooney, of the Tasmanian Government’s Nature Conservation Branch, who showed them to various other wildlife specialists. No-one had seen anything like it. Since then the devil population at Mount William has been estimated to have plummeted by 80 per cent.

Over subsequent years, similarly disfigured animals began turning up in other parts of Tasmania. In 2000, the first case of DFTD was formally recognised, and by late 2003 the Tasmanian Government – its awareness heightened through the efforts of Nick and others – was sufficiently concerned to provide $1.8 million for a three-year DFTD program. The Federal Government has pledged a further $2 million over two years. This should keep research rolling until 2009.

The disease is ugly and the animals it afflicts die suffering. Devils with DFTD develop malignant tumours on their mouths and faces that inhibit their ability to feed, and they usually die within 3–8 months of showing the first symptoms. Animals with DFTD continue to behave normally – they bite other devils, and are bitten. Researchers suspected that DFTD might be spread by this behaviour and, early this year, groundbreaking genetic research confirmed their awful suspicions (see “Contagious cancer”, page 109). Unlike nearly every other cancer, DFTD is spread through contact.

Devil Heaven

Deep in the heart of every wild little devil there’s a patch of earth just like this. Stretching south from Discovery Beach, where Billie is crouched holding a male devil about five years old, the west coast of Tasmania provides a barely adequate bulwark against the Southern Ocean, which regularly rises and rages like some bad-mannered house guest. A light mist of salty air hangs over the steep, wave-cut dune. A damp onshore breeze has researchers’ fleeces zipped to the chin.

“Devils love the coast because there’s lots of food on the beach – washed-up seabirds mainly,” Doozie says. “So heading for the beach is a good strategy if you’re devil trapping. It’s ideal here because there’s a wide corridor of heath and scrub between the dunes and beach and the button grass plains further inland.”

The TMAG team has set traps in each of these areas. They’ll check them every day for a week. It’s only the second day of the study, but already there’s cause for a smile. “It’s so nice to be working in an area where there are older animals,” Billie says. Devils normally live to about five or six, but in areas where the disease occurs they rarely reach three. They seem to get DFTD at about two and are dead in under a year. “On what we’ve seen so far, this area appears to have a ‘normal’ population,” Doozie says. “There’s a mix of ages – older animals having progressively more trouble making a living, thinner-looking young ones and some nice healthy specimens in the mid range.”

His words resonate as the team works its way northwards, clearing traps throughout the morning. A delicate juvenile female is taken from one, a robust 7 kg male from another. Animals trapped for the first time are subjected to an extensive examination of teeth, ears and limbs. A microchip – of the sort used to tag domestic pets – is implanted and blood taken.

There’s some bycatch, too. Mid-morning, Billie clears a beautiful little eastern quoll from a trap. “We try to map everything that’s going on in a study area while seeking the disease,” Doozie says. “The possibility of species extinction is bad enough, but people must realise that the ecology of the Tasmanian bush is changing as the disease spreads. At Mount William, where DFTD has been known to be present for the longest period, the lack of devils has led to a boom in eastern quolls and feral cats. With the thylacine gone, devils became the dominant predator and if they go, it’ll be something else.”

Better the devil you know

A couple of days spent observing Tasmanian devils is enough to convince anyone of the importance of efforts to preserve these tough, determined survivors. Up close they’re handsome and engaging, bright-eyed and alert.

One of the last devils cleared from a trap this day is another older male. He has a gaping, matchbox-sized wound near his right hip, which Jemma declares unlikely to cause any lasting harm. “Devils are so incredibly resilient,” she says. “Provided the right conditions, they’ll recover from most traumas and diseases.” She adds mention of devils being prone – like most marsupial carnivores – to a wide variety of cancers, most of which they survive. “I recently did a biopsy on a devil that had four different types of tumour,” she says.

“Including facial tumours?” asks Billie.
“So what killed it?”
“A car.”
These tough animals won’t be shuffling into the long, dark night of extinction any time soon. DFTD is better understood all the time, and plans to protect devils are progressing on several fronts, including continued monitoring, captive breeding and the establishment of disease-free reserves.

But Doozie is realistic about the devil’s long-term prospects in the wild. “This species is already out on a limb,” he says. “It’s isolated on an island – never a good sign – and the chances are that, if DFTD doesn’t get it, something else eventually will.”

Australian Geographic thanks Kathryn Medlock, David Pemberton, Nick Mooney and Menna Jones for their help with this article. The AG Society and TMAG thank those who supported AG’s 2005 Tasmanian devil campaign. The $17,500 raised enabled TMAG to organise helicopter and logistical support for this expedition.

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 84:Oct – Dec 2008