Second Form of Contagious Cancer Found in Tasmanian Devils

The cancer causes large facial tumors in infected devils and can result in death within months.

A newly observed form of cancer in Tasmanian devils can be spread by biting, researchers say.

With eight reported cases across southeastern Tasmania, the cancer causes large facial tumors in infected devils and can result in death within months.

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This is the second transmissible cancer known to affect the species. The other form, which was first observed in 1996, is also spread via bites and results in facial tumors, but is genetically distinct.

Known as devil facial tumor disease, the parasitic cancer has been blamed for significant population declines in recent years, as devils are known to bite each other frequently during mating and feeding. In 2008, the IUCN categorized the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) as Endangered, noting that some individual populations are now a mere tenth of their original size.

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Some devils are immune to devil facial tumor disease, and captive breeding programs have been initiated as a last-ditch effort to ensure the species' long-term survival.

"Until now, we've always thought that transmissible cancers arise extremely rarely in nature, but this new discovery makes us question this belief," the University of Cambridge's Dr. Elizabeth Murchison, senior author of a new study about the cancer, remarked in a news release.

"It makes us wonder if Tasmanian devils might be particularly vulnerable to developing this type of disease, or that transmissible cancers may not be as rare in nature as we previously thought."

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Similar transmissible cancers have also been observed in dogs and soft-shell clams.

The research, from the Universities of Cambridge and Tasmania, is detailed the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Article first appeared on Discovery's blog Dscovrd.

As we ease into the weekend, what better way to wind down than by looking at photos of cute wombats? We begin with the closest thing the world has to a celebrity wombat, Patrick. A resident and top attraction at Ballarat Wildlife Park in Victoria, Australia, Patrick comes by his fame thanks to his size. As you can see he's just honking enormous. He's also old, and fat -- oldest and fattest among all wombats, in fact, at 29 years old and 88 pounds at last check. Patrick has his own Facebook page, and he even has his own

merchandise line

. As tempting as it is to devote an entire gallery to Patrick, we promise we'll move on now and show you other wombats.

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OK, we lied. He's too cute for just one slide. Here's Patrick not even hardly trying to look cute but succeeding at it anyway. The Ballarat Wildlife Park people say Patrick is so famous he's even been visited by actor Nicolas Cage. We'll pause a moment while you picture that for yourself.

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OK, we lied, again. Last time, though, we promise. Here's Patrick chowing down. A wombat's gotta eat, after all. Wombats are herbivores and dine on various types of roots, bark and grass.

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A sleeping wombat is a cute wombat. They're nocturnal creatures, so they catch most of their Zzzzs while it's light out.

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Wombats are marsupials, toting around their young in pouches. Baby wombats spend nearly half of their first year in the mother's pouch. By the latter half of the year, though, they're ready to leave the pouch and make it on their own.

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Wombats have razor-sharp incisors that grow throughout their lives, getting whittled back down to size when they're used to gnaw on rougher vegetarian fare.

Your run-of-the-mill wombat will be a bit more than 3 feet long and will weigh around 55 pounds.

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There are two type of wombat: hairy-nosed and bare-nosed (also called common). They can live for anywhere from around 5 years in the wild to 30 years if they're in captivity. They're native strictly to Australia and a few nearby islands.

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Wombats make their homes in burrows. They're strong and have very sharp claws that allow them to build often elaborate tunnel and chamber complexes, like the adjoining rooms of a house.

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Unfortunately, their innate drive to make burrows makes wombats vulnerable to angry farmers and ranchers who take umbrage and the stocky little mammal's accidentally destructive ways. For this reason, they're often hunted. Watch your six, little fellas.