Environment Nature finds a way for tough little devils

Nature finds a way for tough little devils

Tasmanian devils have had a reprieve from extinction, thanks to the sturdy little predators building their own natural defences against a deadly cancer epidemic that has been ravaging the species.

An international team of scientists analysing natural adaptions to the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), has found that devils are beating the cancer without human help.

Scientists now say the devils’ evolutionary response to disease makes it likely that populations will be able to live with the disease, rather than die out from it.

University of Tasmania disease ecologist Dr Rodrigo Hamede said an increasing amount of evidence demonstrates that wild Tasmanian devils have been evolving defence mechanisms.

“We have witnessed fast evolution in action and an increasing number of individuals with tumour regressions; that is, devils that can eliminate the cancer on their own,” Dr Hamede said.

“At the same time, we have seen signs of selection against DFTD in the devil’s genome, more specifically, in genes associated with cancer and immune function.”

Dr Hamede said natural selection should favour increases in the frequency of these traits against cancer from generation to generation.

“Therefore, management interventions, both in captivity and in the wild, need to consider these evolutionary processes to ensure adapted genotypes that exhibit resistance to DFTD are represented across populations.”

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