Conservation work to protect the Tasmanian devil is under the spotlight as a team of
specialist researchers reach the finals of this year’s 2011 Annual Australian Museum
Eureka Prizes.

The team, affectionately known as the ‘Devil’s Advocates’ and which comprises researchers

from Griffith University, The University of Sydney, The University of Tasmania, Save the

Tasmanian Devil Program and the Menzies Research Institute, Tasmania is one of three

finalists in the running for the award which will be presented in Sydney on September 6.

The Devil’s Advocates have been collaborating on an unusual wildlife disease and its

management, with their research findings providing fundamental information needed to

conserve the Tasmanian devil, an animal threatened with extinction from a contagious

cancer, Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).

“We have discovered that the cancer spreads because of low genetic diversity in devils

and also that it can be transmitted in very low density populations. These findings mean

that the disease might cause extinction of the devil in the wild,” said Griffith researcher

and School of Environment Head, Professor Hamish McCallum.

“We are investigating management options such as reintroduction from captive populations and the development of a vaccine.

“We’re also exploring any possible genetic resistance or tolerance to DFTD and genetic


Professor McCallum said it was a great honour to be nominated for the Eureka award.

“It also ensures that this important conservation problem remains in the public eye as the team is now entering a fascinating phase of its research.

“Our previous work has shown that Tasmanian devil populations have very low genetic

diversity. The disease is now entering devil populations in western Tasmania, which have

a somewhat different genetic composition.

“Our most recent results have shown that the disease is behaving very differently in these

populations and has not caused the same rapid population declines as have occurred


“However, we can’t yet identify resistant genotypes and we don’t know how coevolutionary

processes on both the devils and the tumours will operate. That is the focus of our current research, for which we have received new Australian Research Council funding of $370,000 over the next three years.”