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Proc Biol Sci. 2018 Nov 21;285(1891). pii: 20182239. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2018.2239.

Sex bias in ability to cope with cancer: Tasmanian devils and facial tumour disease.

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School of Natural Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia
School of Natural Sciences, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.
Instituto de Ciencias Ambientales y Evolutivas, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Chile.
Center of Applied Ecology and Sustainability, Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.
School of Medicine, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.
School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA.


Knowledge of the ecological dynamics between hosts and pathogens during the initial stages of disease emergence is crucial to understanding the potential for evolution of new interspecific interactions. Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) populations have declined precipitously owing to infection by a transmissible cancer (devil facial tumour disease, DFTD) that emerged approximately 20 years ago. Since the emergence of DFTD, and as the disease spreads across Tasmania, the number of devils has dropped up to 90% across 80% of the species's distributional range. As a result, the disease is expected to act as a strong selective force on hosts to develop mechanisms of tolerance and/or resistance to the infection. We assessed the ability of infected devils to cope with infection, which translates into host tolerance to the cancer, by using the reaction norm of the individual body condition by tumour burden. We found that body condition of infected hosts is negatively affected by cancer progression. Males and females presented significant differences in their tolerance levels to infection, with males suffering declines of up to 25% of their body condition, in contrast to less than 5% in females. Sex-related differences in tolerance to cancer progression may select for changes in life-history strategies of the host and could also alter the selective environment for the tumours.


DFTD; cope with infection; host–pathogen; tolerance to infection

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