Sydney Science Forum: Sympathy for the Devil

25 July 2012

Our native Tasmanian devils are facing extinction due to a contagious cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease that has already decimated 80% of the devil population. Hear what the future holds for the Tasmanian devil, when Associate Professor Kathy Belov presents on her fascinating research at the Sydney Science Forum: Sympathy for the Devil on Wednesday 25 July.

Associate Professor Kathy Belov, ARC Future Fellow and Head of the Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, is playing a key role in saving the Tasmanian devils with her award winning genomics research and her involvement in the captive breeding program.

"Devil Facial Tumour Disease is absolutely devastating for Tasmania devils, as it continues to decimate devil populations in the wild. If we don't act now, the Tasmanian devil will become extinct," said Associate Professor Kathy Belov.

"It's a really unusual disease, as it's a cancer that's contagious. It's passed from devil to devil when they bite each other, as the cancerous cells from one devil don't invoke an immune response in other devils. We think the disease is able to spread this way because of the lack of genetic diversity within wild devil populations and possibly because the tumour is suppressing the immune response too."

Devil Facial Tumour Disease has no cure and results in infected devils developing cancerous growths around their mouths and noses. Infected devils are unable to eat due to the rapidly growing facial tumours and die of starvation within six months of contracting the disease.

"The disease has spread so rapidly and disasterously in wild devil populations, that we're less confident now than we were a year ago that devils will survive this epidemic in the wild," said Associate Professor Belov.

"The best thing we can do now to bring the devil back from the brink of extinction is to support the captive breeding program, which keeps devils in zoos and wildlife parks free from the disease.

"The Zoos and Aquarium Association and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program are running Australia's largest captive breeding program. My team is working with the Zoos and Aquarium Association to manage the genetics of the captive breeding program - 500 devils are held in captivity, including 150 that were recently brought in from the wild.," explained Associate Professor Belov.

"Our aim is to capture all of the genetic diversity that is in the wild and maintain it in captivity for thirty years, until it is safe to start releasing animals back into the wild. I believe that this insurance program is vitally important for the future of the Tasmanian devil."

At the free public event on Wednesday 25July, Associate Professor Belov will announce a new project to sequence genomic DNA from all of the Tasmanian devils in captivity. The public are invited to help fund this vital research and bring this species back from the brink of extinction by sponsoring the genetic sequencing of individual devils. Donate on the night or donate online via:

Representatives from the Zoos and Aquarium Association, the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, Taronga Zoo, the Australian Reptile Park, Devil Ark and Healesville Sanctuary will attend the Sydney Science Forum.

Meet two young Tasmanian devils from Devil Ark - named Staffy and Stanley - after Associate Professor Belov's Sydney Science Forum and see first hand how gorgeous and fascinating an animal the Tasmanian devil is.

Interactive booths with activities and demonstrations on Australian marsupials will also be running after the Sydney Science Forum, with staff from the Australian Museum, City of Sydney, Taronga Zoo and Devil Ark devil keepers, Feature Creatures with live animals, Zoo and Aquarium Association, and the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science.

Sydney Science Forum: Sympathy for the Devil

Date: Wednesday 25 July 2012
Time: 5.45pm - 6.45pm
Venue: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, University of Sydney
Cost: Free