The ecology and evolution of wildlife cancers: Applications for management and conservation

Authors: Rodrigo Hamede, Rachel Owen, Hannah Siddle, Sarah Peck, Menna Jones, Antoine M. Dujon, Mathieu Giraudeau, Benjamin Roche, Beata Ujvari, Frédéric Thomas

Source: Evolutionary Applications (MAR 2020)

Brief summary of the paper:

Ecological and evolutionary concepts have been widely adopted to understand host–pathogen dynamics, and more recently, integrated into wildlife disease management.

Cancer is a ubiquitous disease that affects most metazoan species; however, the role of oncogenic phenomena in eco‐evolutionary processes and its implications for wildlife management and conservation remains undeveloped.

Despite the pervasive nature of cancer across taxa, our ability to detect its occurrence, progression and prevalence in wildlife populations is constrained due to logistic and diagnostic limitations, which suggests that most cancers in the wild are unreported and understudied. Nevertheless, an increasing number of virus‐associated and directly transmissible cancers in terrestrial and aquatic environments have been detected. Furthermore, anthropogenic activities and sudden environmental changes are increasingly associated with cancer incidence in wildlife.

This highlights the need to upscale surveillance efforts, collection of critical data and developing novel approaches for studying the emergence and evolution of cancers in the wild. Here, we discuss the relevance of malignant cells as important agents of selection and offer a holistic framework to understand the interplay of ecological, epidemiological and evolutionary dynamics of cancer in wildlife.

We use a directly transmissible cancer (devil facial tumour disease) as a model system to reveal the potential evolutionary dynamics and broader ecological effects of cancer epidemics in wildlife. We provide further examples of tumour–host interactions and trade‐offs that may lead to changes in life histories, and epidemiological and population dynamics.

Within this framework, we explore immunological strategies at the individual level as well as transgenerational adaptations at the population level. Then, we highlight the need to integrate multiple disciplines to undertake comparative cancer research at the human–domestic–wildlife interface and their environments.

Finally, we suggest strategies for screening cancer incidence in wildlife and discuss how to integrate ecological and evolutionary concepts in the management of current and future cancer epizootics.