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Tasmanian tumours blamed on inbreeding

Devils face visit from the Darwinator

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The devil is the largest surviving marsupial predator on the island and has hitherto kept the populations of other predators in check. Its decline has allowed the non-native red fox - a serious pest - to gain a foothold in only six years, and the feral cat's chances of establishing itself are also increasing (although enterprising and unsqueamish souls have found a possible culinary solution to that one). Matters haven't been helped by the fact that the 10-year-old problem was not taken seriously until 2003, when state government funds were finally allocated for research.

Researcher Dr Katharine Belov of Sydney University also fears for the future of the koala and the platypus, as both distinctively Aussie beasts are splashing in similarly shallow gene pools.

"Loss of genetic diversity in these genes just opens the door for emergence and rapid spread of new and old disease," she explains.

The fragilities of Australia's unique biodiversity have long been apparent - 20 native species have become extinct in the last 200 years, including the former largest carnivorous Tasmanian marsupial, the thylacine.

Devil expert Hamish McCallum of the University of Tasmania called the research findings "significant, but depressing... it suggests it will be very difficult for the animals to evolve resistance to [DFTD], unless we find individuals with more diversity, which is unlikely".

At least Warner Bros, without whose character the Tasmanian devil would be as obscure as the spotted-tailed quoll, has finally come around to the idea of supporting the cause after years of dispute with the Tasmanian government.

The animation giant agreed last year to help the stricken beasts off whose fluffy backs it's made millions of dollars by ponying up the proceeds from a special edition stuffed Taz toy. ®

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