Sympathy For The (Tasmanian) Devil
From my two port visits to Hobart, Tasmania, the thing I think I'll remember most (other than stupid Ensign tricks) are my trips to this little roadside zoo where they had a Tasmanian Devil display. They did a "feeding demonstration" where they'd put a dead rabbit in the enclosure with two devils... those things would eat the whole rabbit, bones and all, in about five minutes, while snarling and barking at each other. It was very impressive. The zookeeper said that the Devil is the only mammal that's never been domesticated -- apparently they just hate everything and anyone, probably because they're so ugly. I thought they were great.
That's why I was saddened to read about a strange disease that's been ravaging the natural Devil population. Scientifically, it's quite interesting -- it's apparently a cancer that's spread by biting:
"But while many scientists had suspected a virus, Anne-Marie Pearse, a researcher for the state of Tasmania who co-wrote the article in Nature, found abnormalities in the chromosomes of the cancer cells were the same in every tumor.
"Pearse and her colleague Kate Swift discovered that, while the normal complement of chromosomes in the devil is 14, the tumours contained 13, which were grossly abnormal. These chromosomal rearrangements were identical in tumours from all 11 animals studied by the scientists.
"This offers support for the idea that the disease apparently began with a single sick devil, probably in the mid-1990s, that directly spread the cancer cells by biting other animals. The authors propose that cancer cells are dislodged from one animal and essentially transplanted to another as a result of bites inflicted around the mouth.
"Devils jaw wrestle and bite each other a lot, usually in the face and around the mouth, and bits of tumor break off one devil and stick in the wounds of another," said Ms Pearse."
Hopefully, now that they know the cause, they'll be able to help the Devils recover. (Tasmanian farmers actually like them, because they keep the area free of corpses, and rarely kill healthy animals.) The Wikipedia article I linked earlier has a lot of good information on these fascinating animals.