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Drumming up support for Tasmania's unsexy beast

It would appear to be one heck of a public relations challenge: Persuade the Australian public to care about a seldom-seen animal the size of a cocker spaniel, beady-eyed, standoffish and fond of displaying a mouthful of pointy teeth. Picture a skunk, with the jaws of an alligator and the charm of a weasel.

From a marketing standpoint, the Tasmanian devil is no koala.

But the pugnacious carnivore needs help. Scientists across Australia are working to untangle the genetic puzzle behind a fatal disease decimating the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. The affliction is straight out of a sci-fi movie: Tumors sprout around the devil's mouth, quickly morphing into bulbous red pustules that eventually take over the animal's entire face, leaving it unable to eat or drink.

Alarmed by the threat to a species already on the brink of extinction, wildlife biologists here began tracking the disease 15 years ago. Early on, they identified how it spread: through facial bites when devils fight or mate. The disease had all the characteristics of a virus. But last year geneticists made a sobering discovery. Devil facial tumor disease, or DFTD, was no virus, but a highly infectious cancer — one of only three communicable cancers known to medicine.

That breakthrough piqued the interest of scientists. Though researchers say it is unlikely that humans could become infected with DFTD, the knowledge gleaned in research across Australia could prove invaluable should an infectious cancer appear among people.

The name Tasmanian devil conjures up images of the Looney Tunes character, a slightly daft and clumsy creature that does little more than whirl and slobber. Yet, in ways that surprise even themselves, Australians are rallying around this nasty, screeching beast that once was the most reviled animal in the country. There are foods and wines branded with the devil's likeness; bars and coffee shop signs feature caricatures of a snarling devil, as does the official logo of the Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service. Schoolchildren study the creature and a visit to a devil sanctuary is a standard day trip for cruise ship passengers disembarking in Hobart.

Even if relatively few Australians have taken the time to see a devil at a zoo, and even fewer have spied one in the bush, they are getting the message: It may be a devil, but it's our devil. They're "a little Aussie fighter," suggested Kathy Belov, a molecular geneticist at the University of Sydney working to save the marsupial.

"There's something really adorable about little devils," she said.

There's also this. Wildlife stewards in Australia's island state of Tasmania have at least one biological crime to atone for: Conservationists worldwide haven't forgiven officials here for allowing the world's last remaining thylacine — the Tasmanian tiger — to die in a concrete cell in Hobart Zoo in 1936.

Wildlife officials have created a "Devil Ark," dispatching small groups of uninfected devils to zoos and sanctuaries around the state and mainland to establish an insurance population and stave off extinction. Researchers believe that without this massive intervention, wild devils could be gone in five years. Already, 90% of the known Tasmanian devil population is lost.

"No one, politicians to scientists, wants to lose the devil on their watch," Belov said. "Everyone is really desperate to make sure it doesn't happen."

::

Greg Irons strode briskly past the low-walled enclosures at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, trailing a ragtag parade: Grandpa, the elderly kangaroo he picked up on the way out of the front office, Mavis the plump wombat, who insisted on being carried, and young Sam, here with his father to get a close look at a real Tasmanian devil.

"Wicked! That's awesome," the boy yelled, watching four devils amble around their pen. "Dad! Get a picture!"

Irons, director of the wildlife sanctuary carved into a hillside north of Hobart, is raising 16 devils in quarantine free from cancer. The goal is to prepare them to become part of Australia's insurance population, living in wildlife sanctuaries. Bonorong is one of the few facilities in the country where devils can be observed up close.

The affable Irons, 27, may be the devil's most ardent champion. He laughed as he watched four pudgy pups — Donny, Pee Wee, Millie and Chopper — chase one another, and described their individual personalities. As the devils clambered over him, occasionally nibbling on his fingertips, Irons assured that his charges were misunderstood.

"Their so-called hunting skills? Their eyesight goes to about 4 or 5 feet," he said. "Agility? They run like they're injured." Their top speed is about 9 mph.

It was the screaming in the dark bush land that doomed the marsupial, which has been on the most-wanted list for almost as long as it has been known. European settlers in the 19th century heard the devil's signature shrieks and saddled the animal with its unsympathetic name. Bounty hunters captured and poisoned the devils, natural scavengers, into near-extinction in the erroneous belief that they were attacking sheep and other livestock.

Devils are hardly finicky eaters — anything dead or rotting will do. Irons dangled an unrecognizable road kill animal into a pen, setting off a free-for-all. With a chorus of coughs, snorts and hissing, four hungry devils each chomped onto a body part and set off in different directions, making off with a hunk of fur, bone and meat. Their pink ears turned a vivid red, signaling, in this instance, excitement.

Tasmanian devils possess the most powerful jaws of any mammal in the world, capable of applying a ton of pressure per cubic foot. Their jaws crank open beyond 90 degrees. Their sharp front teeth are designed for ripping and their broad back teeth snap through bones with ease. Those oversized jaw muscles come with a tradeoff — inside their large heads reside tiny brains.

Irons, sporting a silver Tassie Devil belt buckle, emphasizes education to build public support and raise money for the animals. Bonorong has a 100% success rate in its captive breeding program, he said.

"I need the public's help in a big way," he said, absently stroking the flat head of a devil. "If people could see these animals the way I see them, we can save them."

::

Generally, when animal research commands significant governmental funding, it's a good bet there's something in it for humans. In this case, the devil's contribution to mankind is a rare opportunity to track the feints and machinations of a clever and deadly transmissible cancer.

Researchers are amazed at the facial tumor's ability to propagate. It is evolving, with more than a dozen mutations identified so far. Since the disease is parasitic and requires a live animal for transmission, geneticists speculate the mutations are a sign the cancer is evolving to coexist with its host, not kill it.

As yet, the cancer has not crossed to other species in the wild. But the possibility that humans could contract Devil facial tumor disease, while remote, is nonetheless chilling. "You can never say never, but it is a big leap," Belov said.

Those like Belov who study the disease say it is fascinating to try to outwit the cancer, a task made more difficult because of the lack of genetic diversity among devils. In part because they've been isolated on an island for hundreds of years, the gene pool for devils is increasingly shallow. Genetically, one devil resembles another, which means they all most likely have the same inability to develop a defense against the cancer. Infected animals die within three to six months of contracting the disease.

Belov and her lab full of graduate students in Sydney discovered one of the cancer's signatures. When the disease invades a host devil, it introduces a gene that lacks a protein that would identify that cell as coming from another animal. She refers to this stealth biological weapon as the "invisibility cloak," a metaphor that resonates with her Harry Potter-loving students.

"Usually, there are little flags, genetic information, on cells," Belov said. "In this case, the receptor immune system doesn't see any enemy flags. There's no response." The cancer becomes a Trojan horse, welcomed by the unsuspecting host.

Greg Woods, an immunologist at the University of Tasmania's medical school, believes that this particular cancer found a perfect host to ensure its survival. Sequestered in his lab in downtown Hobart, Woods and others have tried, with little success, to "wake up" the devils' immune system so the animals might fight the cancer on their own.

"We can produce an immune response in some devils," Woods said. "There have been some mini-breakthroughs, but mostly it's been a hard slog.

"This research alters the way you look at things. We've been trained to look at things one way, but then something comes along that breaks all the rules."

Even those of public relations.

julie.cart@latimes.com

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