The Plight of the Tasmanian Devil: Emerging Infectious Diseases and Biodiversity

The Plight of the Tasmanian Devil: A Case-Study for the Importance of Emerging Infectious Diseases and their Effect on Biodiversity

The small island of Tasmania, Australia is an isolated habitat of rich biodiversity unlike anywhere else in the world, and home to the Tasmanian Devil (yes, it's a real animal!).Though it seems like a ferocious animal at first, the devil is a fascinating creature that is the largest carnivorous marsupial on earth, making it incredibly important for Tasmania’s ecology, and is only found on this one island. Unfortunately, in recent decades, a condition called devil facial tumor disease has been dramatically reducing the already threatened species numbers down and now the devil is listed as endangered. With threats coming from this contagious cancer (transmitted to devils because they often bite each other when fighting over food), human influences such as hunting and motor vehicle collisions, and invasive species such as red fox preying upon and competing with them, devils are on their last leg in this state that is no stranger to animal extinctions.

Not only is the devil an emblem of the state’s pride, culture, and natural wonders, but it is also symbolic of the conservation and health issues threatening animals today and how that might affect the people who are in contact or depend on them. The government and universities in Tasmania have already initiated some programs to research the transmissible cancerous disease and reduce its impact, and have certainly made some progress, but the population is still rapidly declining (80% decline since the mid-1990s) and relatively few devils are estimated to be left in the wild. In addition, because Tasmanian devils have extremely low levels of genetic diversity and are only found in the island of Tasmania, they are more prone to the infectious cancer and possible extinction from it. This issue therefore is important from many aspects: ecologically, for conservation, biodiversity, for culture, for animal health, and for even human health.

Combining my love of environmental, ecological, and global animal and human health studies, along with my love of the visual arts, I hope to address solutions to this problem by assisting with research to find more about or a cure for the disease (especially in regards to monitoring the quarantining method) as well as documenting visually the plight of the Tasmanian devil. I want to bring this issue to the forefront of the global society, outside of just Tasmania or Australia, because it is so relevant to other discussions of conservation, biodiversity, and emerging diseases. Through the AT&T New Media Fellowship and media such as photography, film, audio, and this blog I hope to give all those interested access to information-- visual, scientific, or otherwise—and care about the fate of the Tasmanian devil and its implications for other realms that hit closer to home.


  • Hilary Rosenthal | September 27th, 2012
    The triangular-shaped state of Tasmania is not very large, and much of it is outback or farmed land. The devil is difficult to spot outside of captivity, but the animals' geographic movements in recent years have been easier to track, which has...
  • Hilary Rosenthal | September 24th, 2012
    Along with the efforts to provide insurance populations of Devils and isolate the ones with Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), many experiments are being undertaken to understand the tumor's growth and develop an antibiotic solution. Studies in...
  • Watch this video
    Hilary Rosenthal | September 19th, 2012
    Menna Jones, Australian Research Council Fellow at University of Tasmania, discusses the concept of "biosecurity" and the devils in captivity:
  • Hilary Rosenthal | March 31st, 2011
    Next stop on my investigation of current devil breeding and quarantine efforts was the breeding facility of Taroona. The facility housed a number of devils that are free of the cancerous tumor, but are unfortunately quite used to the captured life....
  • Hilary Rosenthal | February 21st, 2011
    After getting situated in Tassie, it was time to make my first devil-related stop: the quarantine area just a quick walk downhill on the property I was staying on. This facility holds a number of devils, an amount which fluctuates but averages about...
  • Hilary Rosenthal | February 8th, 2011
    Tasmania, Australia: Many Americans don't even know it exists, or think it's somewhere in Africa. In fact, Tasmania is an island off of mainland Australia that is considered by Australians to be the "natural state" or the "holiday isle"- it's the...
  • Hilary Rosenthal | January 17th, 2011
    Hey all- I'm about wrapping up to leave Australia, and wanted to get a final word out before I left to go home with hopefully a heap of good footage. I've gotten some nice photos and information from the people and places I've been, and here's...
  • Hilary Rosenthal | January 14th, 2011
    Hi all! I've arrived in Australia about three weeks ago and have been doing well- my internet access is a bit shotty, so it's been hard for me to update but I've been getting some good footage and information on the Tasmanian Devil and Tassie- as...