Imagine an aggressive form of face cancer, with fast-growing tumors sprouting from eye sockets and protruding from lips. Sounds like a horrible affliction, right? Now imagine that this face cancer has one additional property, which makes it extremely rare in the annals of medical history: It’s contagious.
You can stop imagining, because this disease is real. Wild populations of the Tasmanian devil, a carnivorous marsupial native to Australia, have been ravaged by devil facial tumor disease; nearly 50 percent of the animals suffer from it. What makes the cancer so frightening is that the tumors themselves are infectious agents. When Tasmanian devils fight or have sex — the species is famous for its rough copulation — the crumbly tumors tend to break off the face and infect the other animal. Once a tumor cell gets a foothold, it’s all over: The devil will be dead in a matter of months.
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