Sympathy for the Devil
The old adage that tells us nice guys finish last has long been supported by nature. We’re used to seeing aggressors prevailing over the meek, be it in the jungle or the office. But a cancerous plague that threatens the Tasmanian devil, a wild species that only lives on the Australian island of Tasmania, seems to be intent on weeding out the aggressors, and favoring the gentler disposition.
The disease, known as “devil facial tumor disease” (DFTD), causes tumors to multiply on the animal. It eventually prevents them from being able to eat, leading them to die of starvation.
Rodrigo Hamede and his team at the University of Tasmania found that the devils with fewer bites, the aggressive ones, were more likely to contract the disease. This is, as Hamede describes, “counterintuitive.” He explains: “In most infectious diseases there are so-called super-spreaders, a few individuals responsible for most of the transmission. But we found the more aggressive devils, rather than being super-spreaders, are super-receivers.”
Since it is this aggression that causes the disease to proliferate, the devils may, according to Hamede, “learn to behave in a way that makes them less susceptible to acquiring the disease.”
In recent years, the Tasmanian devil has declined by more than 80%. As of 2009, it is listed as an endangered species on the IUCN red list. Being “nice guys” may be the only chance Tasmanian devils have to not end up extinct.
Image by sanjoyg, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.