Saskatoon

Inside a Saskatoon student's effort to help save Tasmanian devils

A University of Saskatchewan graduate student is joining an effort to save one of the feistiest animals in Australia.

U of S grad student developing software to stop spread of contagious cancer in the creatures

Once the Tasmanian devils were trapped for data collection, they were temporarily put into burlap sacks. (Submitted by Paul Lamp)

A single computer science class Paul Lamp of Saskatoon took several years ago started him on an unexpected journey tracking Tasmanian devils in Australia.

"I never thought I'd be able to do this," Lamp said of the Australian-focused work he's doing as a computer science graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan.

"I thought I would, you know, take on some software development, software engineering job and maybe that'd be it."

These days, he is focusing on a contagious cancer called called devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), which wiped out 80 per cent of the Tasmanian devil population between 1996 to 2015 before the numbers began stabilizing.

Paul Lamp said his work could be done within the next year or year and a half. (Rosalie Woloski/CBC News)

Lamp's course changed after studying simulation modelling, which allows people in his line of work to track how diseases spread through animal populations.

His first real-life project was studying chronic wasting disease in deer before Lamp started his master's work and pivoted to the Tasmanian devil, a marsupial that's confined to the island of Tasmania off the south coast of Australia.

Lamp spends most of his time sitting in front of a computer in Saskatoon using software that mimics Tasmanian devils and the spread of the transmissible cancer they have while also giving him a chance to simulate ways to slow the disease's spread.

One example is moving Tasmanian devils to different locations, and finding the best way to do that.

"We can help the scientists in Tasmania to make a difference and help these animals to save the species," Lamp said.

But in May, he got a chance to see the Tasmanian devils in person in their natural habitat.

Paul Lamp enjoyed the view while in Tasmania. (Submitted by Paul Lamp)

While the squat, low-slung predators, about as big as a medium-sized dog, have a vicious bite and a frightening scream, which helped earn them the nickname "the devil," they are relatively tame when faced with humans out in the wild, Lamp said.

Once they're familiar with their visitors though, the devil comes out.

Lamp joined a crew that went out at night to trap the nocturnal creatures, which he said sat quite still while researchers took measurements and if the creatures had a tumour, had samples taken.

The physical effect of DFTD is described by those who study it as very graphic, and the disease typically kills Tasmanian devils who get it within a year and a half of getting it.

"You actually understand what you're working with and what's at stake, and what you're trying to save, really," Lamp said.

"Looking at pictures and looking at the computer model, that gets you so far, but actually looking at the real animals in their environment where they live gives you a different standing of it."

The following image is graphic in nature

The cancer cells from DFTD are spread when the Tasmanian devils bite each other during mating season. (Submitted by Paul Lamp)

The data gathered there becomes part of Lamp's complex computer matrix. He said researchers expect to get useful results within the next year, with the software expected to be complete by 2021.

The work gets funding from the San Diego Zoo, which he regularly video conferences with, and is in collaboration with several conservation organizations in Australia.

With files from Quirks & Quarks and CBC Saskatoon Morning