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Keywords:

  • biting patterns;
  • disease ecology;
  • epidemiology;
  • social behaviour;
  • transmissible cancer

Summary

  1. The Tasmanian devil is threatened with extinction by devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), a unique infectious cancer in which the tumour cells themselves, which derive from a single long-dead host devil, are the infective agent and the tumour is an infectious parasitic cell line.
  2. Transmission is thought to occur via direct inoculation of tumour cells when susceptible and infected individuals bite each other or by fomitic transfer of tumour cells. The nature of transmission and the extent to which biting behaviour and devil ecology is associated with infection risk remains unclear. Until our recent study in north-west Tasmania showed reduced population and individual impacts, DFTD had caused massive population declines in all populations monitored.
  3. In this paper, we investigate seasonal patterns of injuries resulting from bites between individuals, DFTD infection status and tumour location in two populations to determine whether the number of bites predicts the acquisition of DFTD and to explore the possibility that the reduced impacts of DFTD in north-west Tasmania are attributed to reduced bite rates.
  4. Devils with fewer bites were more likely to develop DFTD and primary tumours occurred predominantly inside the oral cavity. These results are not consistent with transmission occurring from the biter to the bitten animal but suggest that dominant individuals delivering bites, possibly by biting the tumours of other devils, are at higher risk of acquiring infection than submissive individuals receiving bites. Bite rates, which were higher during autumn and winter, did not differ between sites, suggesting that the reduced population impacts in north-west Tasmania cannot be explained by lower bite rates.
  5. Our study emphasizes the importance of longitudinal studies of individually marked animals for understanding the ecology and transmission dynamics of infectious diseases and parasites in wild populations.