Seasonal, demographic and density-related patterns of contact between Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii): Implications for transmission of devil facial tumour disease



Abstract  Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), is an emerging infectious cancer thought to be spread by biting. It is causing ongoing, severe population decline of the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), the largest surviving marsupial carnivore and there are concerns that DFTD may lead to extinction of the devil. Whether extinction is likely depends on contact rates and their relationship to host density. We investigated contact rates using two different datasets. The first consisted of field observations of contact and biting behaviour around prey carcasses and, the second was a 3-year longitudinal series of injuries in a marked devil population. During feeding interactions at carcasses, contact rates were significantly positively associated with population density and subadults delivered more bites than adult males and females. Injuries from the marked devil population did not differ between adult males and females. In two of the three years, penetrating biting (resulting in injury) increased markedly during the mating season and was more frequent in adults than in subadults. Among injured devils with wounds penetrating the dermal layer, adults were more frequently bitten in the head (the location of primary tumours) in the mating season than in other seasons, and had more head bites than subadults. Our results suggest that the mating season may be the key period for disease transmission. If most penetrating bites occur during mating interactions, DFTD transmission is likely to be frequency dependent, which means that there would be no threshold host density for disease persistence, and disease-induced extinction is possible.