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THE horror of the mysterious disease killing Tasmanian devils still shocks scientist Clare Hawkins. Dr Hawkins has been observing devils with Devil Facial Tumour Disease since March last year.

But the British-born biologist still finds it difficult to deal with the gruesome deformities caused by DFTD.

Wearing gloves and protective clothing, Dr Hawkins has to examine the diseased animals.

DFTD begins with fairly innocuous-looking lesions in a devil's mouth.

These grow into ugly bulbous cancers, which protrude from the neck and often invade the eye sockets, nasal passages and jaw.

Devils in the late stages of the disease can be blind and seriously disturbed, often dying because they cannot fend for themselves.

The time from lesions to death is three to six months.

"The disease is incredibly constant and pretty horrible," Dr Hawkins said.

"It eats away at the bone occasionally and sometimes you'll be opening the mouth and you realise the jaw is no longer solid. That is the worst, it's a dreadful, dreadful disease."

Dr Hawkins is part of a Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment team investigating DFTD.

The team thinks the disease is a new form of cancer never seen before in devils or any other animal.

DPIWE scientists at the Mt Pleasant laboratories in Launceston are working on a theory that DFTD is transmitted mechanically cell to cell when devils bite.

Field biologists think DFTD started in a "rotten apple" devil in the state's North-East.

First reported in 1996, DFTD has spread west to Cradle Mountain and south of Hobart.

DFTD is thought to have killed tens of thousands of devils in its march across the island.

Dr Hawkins and field workers are recording details about local populations including age, sex and disease status from sites statewide.

"When the disease has just started that's when you learn a lot about the epidemiology and how things change," Dr Hawkins said.

It was crucial to get enough data for statistically significant trends to be identified.

"We may not see any clear changes for some years but we're doing our damnedest," Dr Hawkins said.

When enough data is collected, probably in two or three seasons, it will be put through computer models. The modelling is hoped to give clues to DFTD's rate of transmission, impact on populations and the way the species responds to the disease threat.

The team has background data from Freycinet Peninsula on the East Coast where University of Tasmania researcher Menna Jones worked prior to, and during, a local DFTD outbreak in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Dr Jones has won an Australian Research Council grant with leading wildlife disease modeller, Hamish McCallum.

Dr McCallum, an associate professor at the University of Queensland, has an international profile for work on wildlife epidemiology. He is already working on preliminary DFTD data.

Dr Jones and Dr McCallum will work with PhD students Shelly Lachish and Rodrigo Hamede.

Ms Lachish, working on management strategies, started this year working on how DFTD has changed devil life histories.

She is based at the University of Queensland and travels to Freycinet and Mt William on field trips.

Mr Hamede is doing his PhD at the University of Tasmania on the epidemiology of the disease in the wild, including contact rates.

He has already spent about 70 nights in the field observing biting rates in devils as they feed on carcasses.

He observed juveniles being bitten at a high rate in January when first emerged from the pouch. However most biting occurred between adults at mating season in February and March.

"What might be happening is the mating season may be the transmission season," Dr Jones said.

Mr Hamede is planning to use the latest hi-tech equipment to further his research.

If DFTD is transmitted through biting, the disease chose the right animal to infect.

Tasmanian devils are incessant biters.

"I watched a young devil at Bronte in the snow, a young devil repeatedly biting at the tumour of an adult male, biting and slashing at the tumour," Dr Jones said.

"Maybe all that little devil needs to do is bite another little devil, it's got tumour cells all over its teeth and gums -- we don't know yet."

The Australian Research Council team are looking at age-specific reproductive output, including how many pups are being produced in each litter and the survival rate of one season's offspring to the next.

It will investigate ways devils may compensate for the huge DFTD mortality.

"As devil numbers go down there may be more food, juvenile survival might increase, competition may decrease," Dr Jones said.

Devils currently average about 2.75 pups per litter.

Dr Jones thinks it may be possible the DFTD threat will see more females having four pups.

"It's possible they'll breed younger as well," she said.

Dr Jones estimated DFTD spread about 10km a year as it made its way south down Freycinet Peninsula.

But that rate of spread appears far too slow to account for the pace DFTD moved west across the state.

"Its spread was restricted by the geography of the peninsula," she said.

"It may spread at different rates in different geography."

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