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Cancer Could Wipe Out Tasmanian Devils

The Tasmanian devil, one of the world's most unusual animals, is in danger of extinction. A mysterious form of cancer has wiped out as many as half the devils in Tasmania, off the coast of Australia, and there is no known cure.

Named after its native island, the Tasmanian devil is known for its piercing cry and generally brutish behavior. Reaching an average size of 25 pounds, devils are capable of killing a rodent or bird, but they mostly prefer to scavenge from carcasses.

Until recently, there were only about 150,000 devils in the world, almost all in Tasmania. Now half of those are dead, killed off by a bizarre facial cancer that appeared several years ago and continues to spread.

The cancer appears as tumors around the head; it can spread into the jaw, the eye, the neck and other parts of the devil's body. Many of the tumors secrete toxins. If the cancer doesn't kill the animal outright, the tumors eventually block the throat and starve or suffocate the animal. No one knows how the disease started or how to treat it.

Researchers say there's no test to see if a devil has been infected. Their best hope is to find young, uninfected animals and quarantine them.

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Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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