“Survival of the nicest” may just be the Darwinian formula that saves the threatened Tasmanian devil from going the way of the dodo.
A new study by the University of Tasmania shows that the least ferocious of those famously aggressive marsupials are the least likely to catch the deadly cancer that’s wiped out more than 60 percent of their population within the last 20 years.
Known as the Devil Facial Tumor Disease, the cancer interferes with the devil’s ability to eat, causing afflicted animals to starve to death. Unusually, the cancer is infectious, spreading from animal to animal when devils attempt to assert their dominance by biting one another on the face, transmitting the disease with the attacks.
Counterintuitively, researchers found that the animals who were bitten the most were not the ones most likely to catch the illness. In fact, the meaner devils were the most vulnerable.
“More aggressive devils do not get bitten as often, but they bite the tumors of the less aggressive devils and become infected,” study author Dr. Rodrigo Hamede explained in his report.
As natural selection boosts the population of gentle devils, it’s hoped the disease may die out–possibly taking the Tasmanian mean streak with it.
Photo by Chen Wu via WikiMedia