Disease is Hell on Tasmanian Devil Population

Australia steps up protections as mysterious ailment spreads

By Greg Wilson
|  Friday, May 22, 2009  |  Updated 10:00 AM PDT
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Disease is Hell on Tasmanian Devil Population

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The Tasmanian Devil population is down as much as 70% due to a mysterious ailment.

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The Tasmanian Devil's in trouble, but don't blame Bugs Bunny.

The real-life beast, which inhabits its namesake island near mainland Australia, has been decimated by a disease that causes golf ball-sized facial tumors, according to the BBC. The carnivorous marsupial's population has dropped 70% since the mid-1990s, prompting Australia to inccrease protections.

The cancers are mostly concentrated around the mouth and head and the disease is contagious and is spread among groups of devils through biting. Scientists figure the lack of diversity in the species prevents the animals' immune systems from fighting the plague.

Infected animals die within months of the symptoms first appearing. Despite intense scientific research, a cure has not been found.

Some estimates have suggested their numbers are falling fast and could be as low as 20,000.

Americans know the animal best from Taz, the Warner Brothers cartoon character whose relentless pursuit of food is undone by its stupidity -- and Bugs' cleverness.

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