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SYDNEY (Reuters) - A mysterious cancer is killing Australia's Tasmanian devils, whose spine-chilling screeches, dark color and reputed bad temper prompted early settlers to give them their chilling name, wildlife officials said on Thursday.
The world's largest carnivorous marsupial is the size of a stocky small dog but has jaws as strong as a crocodile which allow it to eat up to half its body weight in 30 minutes. An adult can weigh up to 26 pounds.
On Australia's southern island state of Tasmania -- the only place where you can find Tasmanian devils -- they are the dominant predator but are now being stalked by a disease that has cut some population groups by 85 percent.
Wildlife officials said the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) population peaked at around 150,000 to 200,000 in 1996 when the cancer first appeared, but they now fear the cancer may kill two thirds of the population by 2006.
The disease has spread widely in the eastern and central parts of Tasmania over the last two years, causing huge tumors that block the animals' eyesight, hearing or mouths, leaving them unable to feed and starving to death. "We suspect it spreads by biting when the animals quarrel or mate sexually," said Nick Mooney, a wildlife biologist with the nature conservation branch of the state's wildlife department.
The disease, thought to be caused by a virus, will not wipe out the devil as such diseases often spare a few isolated animals who reproduce and replenish the population.
"We may find there is nothing more we can do than isolate parts of the population," Mooney said.