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To lose both would look like carelessness: Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease

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posted on 2023-05-16, 18:51 authored by McCallum, HI, Menna JonesMenna Jones
At the time of European settlement, Tasmania was the last remaining refuge of the two largest marsupial carnivores: the thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger), Thylacinus cynocephalus, and the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii. The extinction of the thylacine is perhaps the most notorious of the many Australian mammal extinctions since European colonisation. It has been partially blamed on disease [1], although there is little hard evidence to support this idea [2]. In 1996, Tasmanian devils were photographed in northeast Tasmania with what were apparently large tumours on their faces [3] (Figure 1). Sporadic reports continued during the next fi ve years. By 2005, the tumours were occurring on more than half of the range of the species, and associated with substantial population declines. Following concerns that the disease might cause the extinction of the devil, the species has recently been listed as vulnerable to extinction at state and national levels. In the words Oscar Wilde put into Lady Bracknell’s mouth, to lose one large marsupial carnivore may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both would look like carelessness. This paper uses the Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) as a case study of the wider issue of how to manage an emerging disease threat that poses a serious conservation threat: how should you proceed when you know very little? This is a question common to many ecological problems; all environmental management operates in the face of uncertainty [4]. If actions are postponed until higher-quality information is available, then it is likely that substantial costs will be incurred. Further, with emerging diseases or invasive species in general, it is likely that control will become more diffi cult or indeed impossible once the agent becomes established [5]. Rapid action is therefore essential but will inevitably be based on incomplete knowledge.


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© 2006 McCallum and Jones. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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