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Zoo's deceased Tasmanian devil helps others in survival fight

Saturday, February 13, 2010 - 10:00 am

Coolah the Tasmanian devil is still stirring things up, six years after his death.

Samples of his tissue, which the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo kept frozen after Coolah's death in 2004, helped researchers identify the cause of the devil facial tumor disease now threatening to wipe out the world's wild Tasmanian devil population, the zoo said in a news release. Researchers reported their study results in the January issue of the journal Science.

Devil facial tumor disease, or DFTD, has killed about 70 percent of wild Tasmanian devils since the illness was discovered in 1996, the zoo said. The disease causes large tumors on an infected animal's face and mouth, preventing it from eating.

Tasmanian devils are native to the island of Tasmania off the southeast coast of Australia. The raccoon-sized, meat-eating animals are members of the marsupial family. Like kangaroos, Tasmanian devil young are born very small and crawl into a pouch on their mother's belly to nurse and grow.

And unlike the whirling Taz character popularized in cartoons, Tasmanian devils run on all four legs and do not spin.

Coolah, who was age 7 1/2 when he died of cancer, was born in 1997 at the Cincinnati Zoo and lived from 1999 to 2004 at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo. Tasmanian devils rarely live beyond 8 years in captivity, local zookeepers said previously.

Before Coolah's death, the Australian government had suspended export of Tasmanian devils to other countries. For the last year or so of his life, Coolah was the last Tasmanian devil living outside Australia.

Because no Tasmanian devils were being exported, zoo veterinarian Dr. Joe Smith decided after Coolah's death to preserve samples of some of the animal's major organs in case they were needed for research, the Fort Wayne zoo said. A few years ago, researchers in New York did call looking for normal Tasmanian devil tissue to serve as a control group for comparison with tissue from animals with DFTD.

The researchers determined DFTD originates in the cells around a Tasmanian devil's nerves, the zoo said. Discovering that information now allows scientists to focus on finding ways to diagnose and treat DFTD, the zoo said.