Tasmanian devils are odd enough. They are homely. Bite each other a lot. They are marsupials. And they live in a place that most of us have to look up on a map (OK if we’re from the U.S. that would be most places.)
That they are burdened by a truly transmissible cancer (one of the very few known to exist on earth) is even odder. The cancer, first noticed in 1996, swept through populations killing off devils as tumors distorted the devils’ mouths and spread throughout their body. The cancer is thought to be spread by biting (these aren’t the most cuddly creatures). As a result within just a couple of decades (for once through no fault of our own, that we know of) the devils have become increasingly endangered. By some estimates, the aggressive disease could wipe out natural populations in just a few more decades.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Resistance. A recent study reveals how some populations of devils are surviving cancer. The cancer spreads by evading immunity. And according to Brendan Epstein and colleagues. authors of the study, it appears that the devils are “evolving immune-modulated resistance” that can help fend off disease. One more oddity for the devils: evolved resistance in just four to six generations. That is pretty cool. We are losing too many species from the earth as it is. Evolution is amazing. Hopefully it can save the devil.