It was the screaming in the dark bush land that doomed the marsupial, which has been on the most-wanted list for almost as long as it has been known. European settlers in the 19th century heard the devil's signature shrieks and saddled the animal with its unsympathetic name. Bounty hunters captured and poisoned the devils, natural scavengers, into near-extinction in the erroneous belief that they were attacking sheep and other livestock.
Devils are hardly finicky eaters — anything dead or rotting will do. Irons dangled an unrecognizable road kill animal into a pen, setting off a free-for-all. With a chorus of coughs, snorts and hissing, four hungry devils each chomped onto a body part and set off in different directions, making off with a hunk of fur, bone and meat. Their pink ears turned a vivid red, signaling, in this instance, excitement.
Tasmanian devils possess the most powerful jaws of any mammal in the world, capable of applying a ton of pressure per cubic foot. Their jaws crank open beyond 90 degrees. Their sharp front teeth are designed for ripping and their broad back teeth snap through bones with ease. Those oversized jaw muscles come with a tradeoff — inside their large heads reside tiny brains.
Irons, sporting a silver Tassie Devil belt buckle, emphasizes education to build public support and raise money for the animals. Bonorong has a 100% success rate in its captive breeding program, he said.
"I need the public's help in a big way," he said, absently stroking the flat head of a devil. "If people could see these animals the way I see them, we can save them."
Generally, when animal research commands significant governmental funding, it's a good bet there's something in it for humans. In this case, the devil's contribution to mankind is a rare opportunity to track the feints and machinations of a clever and deadly transmissible cancer.
Researchers are amazed at the facial tumor's ability to propagate. It is evolving, with more than a dozen mutations identified so far. Since the disease is parasitic and requires a live animal for transmission, geneticists speculate the mutations are a sign the cancer is evolving to coexist with its host, not kill it.
As yet, the cancer has not crossed to other species in the wild. But the possibility that humans could contract Devil facial tumor disease, while remote, is nonetheless chilling. "You can never say never, but it is a big leap," Belov said.
Those like Belov who study the disease say it is fascinating to try to outwit the cancer, a task made more difficult because of the lack of genetic diversity among devils. In part because they've been isolated on an island for hundreds of years, the gene pool for devils is increasingly shallow. Genetically, one devil resembles another, which means they all most likely have the same inability to develop a defense against the cancer. Infected animals die within three to six months of contracting the disease.
Belov and her lab full of graduate students in Sydney discovered one of the cancer's signatures. When the disease invades a host devil, it introduces a gene that lacks a protein that would identify that cell as coming from another animal. She refers to this stealth biological weapon as the "invisibility cloak," a metaphor that resonates with her Harry Potter-loving students.
"Usually, there are little flags, genetic information, on cells," Belov said. "In this case, the receptor immune system doesn't see any enemy flags. There's no response." The cancer becomes a Trojan horse, welcomed by the unsuspecting host.
Greg Woods, an immunologist at the University of Tasmania's medical school, believes that this particular cancer found a perfect host to ensure its survival. Sequestered in his lab in downtown Hobart, Woods and others have tried, with little success, to "wake up" the devils' immune system so the animals might fight the cancer on their own.
"We can produce an immune response in some devils," Woods said. "There have been some mini-breakthroughs, but mostly it's been a hard slog.
"This research alters the way you look at things. We've been trained to look at things one way, but then something comes along that breaks all the rules."
Even those of public relations.