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Smarter Every Day

Watch: Here's What You Need to Know About Devil Facial Tumour Disease

4 SEP 2015

First thing's first - you can stop panicking, because devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is not something you can catch. As a human, you don't have to worry about contracting a horrific form of cancer that bores infected holes in your face until you die just by touching another human. But that's the reality for one of Australia's most charismatic native species, the Tasmanian devil, and it's driving these plucky little carnivores to extinction. So what can we do about it?


In the latest episode of Smarter Every Day, Destin takes us to "ground zero" of the fight against DFTD. Visiting a research facility at the University of Tasmania in Launceston, the first thing he learns is how to catch a Tasmanian devil. Now, this thing might look mighty cute (and sleepy) in the video, but its large and extremely muscular head and neck allows it to generate one of the strongest bites per unit body mass of any land mammal on Earth, so if you're gonna catch a devil, you'd better do it carefully.

Turns out this means picking up the bulldog-sized creature by the tail, and lowering it into a sack. If you want to check it for facial tumours, which start off in the mouth, you have to cover your captured devil's eyes with the sack, and start poking around in its mouth - very, very gently. "You really love him, don't you?" Destin asks research veterinarian Alexandre Kreiss as he gives the devil the all-clear. Aww.

One of the biggest problems with DFTD - apart from the fact that it's spread through mere contact between devils and has a 100 percent mortality rate - is that we're so far seeing no signs of immunity in devil populations. This means when it hits a population in the wild, the population will spiral into continued decline until all the infected individuals are removed. So far the disease has wiped out 80-90 percent of the total population of Tasmanian devils in less than two decades.

A bit of a warning here, because while everything we've just told you about DFTD shows how much it sucks, nothing can really prepare you for what this disease actually looks like. Destin has a couple of images in the video above, and it's simply horrendous. Completely taking over the eyes, mouth, and teeth, an infected Tasmanian devil will eventually starve to death while carrying these excruciating lesions.

Sounds pretty bad, right? Well it is, but researchers in Tasmania are making some pretty amazing headway in the pursuit of a vaccine. I'll let Destin, or rather, the scientists themselves, explain how they're doing it in the Smarter Every Day episode above, and how they're even applying their research to investigations into human cancers too.