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June 18, 2018  |  Login

Tasmanian Devil
Sarcophilus harrisii

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What Are They Like?

The Tasmanian devil is a small, carnivorous marsupial that lives only on the island of Tasmania off the Australian coast. Like Australia’s most famous marsupial, the kangaroo, Tasmanian devils nurse and carry their young in a pouch. Tasmanian devils range from 21-30 inches  (53.3-76.2 centimeters) long, and weigh between 9-26 pounds (4-11.8 kilograms), with their weight depending on the abundance of available food. Tasmanian devils are covered with coarse, black fur that is marked with irregular white blazes across the chest, shoulders and rump. They have broad heads and powerful jaws with large, strong teeth that deliver the strongest bite (relative to size) of any living mammal. Tasmanian devils have highly sensitive whiskers on their faces and in clumps on the top of their heads that help them sense prey as they forage in the dark. They also have acute hearing and an excellent sense of smell. The average lifespan of a Tasmanian devil is five years in the wild.

Where Do They Live?

Tasmanian devils can be found in most habitats throughout the island of Tasmania. They particularly like dry eucalyptus forests, woodlands and agricultural areas—almost anywhere they can shelter by day and scavenge for food at night.

Did You Know?

The Tasmanian devil stores fat in its tail, so a fat tail indicates a healthy devil.

How Are Babies Made?

Female Tasmanian devils become fertile once a year after reaching sexual maturity in their second year. During the breeding season, which is most intense in March but can continue until July, males fight over females, which will mate with the dominant male. After a pregnancy of three weeks, the female gives birth to 20-30 raisin-sized young. When the young are born, they migrate to the mother’s pouch. Despite the large litter, competition is fierce because the mother has only four nipples. Once inside the pouch, the four babies that secure a nipple will remain attached for the next five months, after which the fully-furred young are left by their mother in a grass-lined den. They start to roam from the den about six months after birth and are fully weaned and independent by ten months after birth.

What Do They Eat?

While Tasmanian devils can and do kill their own prey, they are predominantly scavengers that eat carrion. They are voracious eaters that will eat just about anything, including insects, birds, beached fish and domestic livestock. Their favorite foods, though, are small mammals such as possums, wallabies and wombats. When they find food, they give new meaning to the “clean plate club”—they eat everything, including fur, skin, meat, organs, skull and bones.

Did You Know?
Tasmanian devils once were found throughout Australia, but became extinct there about 600 years ago when non-native dingoes (Asian dogs) were introduced to the continent.

What Do They Do?

A nocturnal creature that sleeps during the day and searches for food from dusk to dawn, the Tasmanian devil is known for its blood-curdling, screeching cry and demonic growls that pierce the night. These fearsome sounds are probably what led early settlers to give the “devil” its name. Despite its name and reputation, though, Tasmanian devils are actually shy and somewhat wary creatures. When threatened by a predator, a Tasmanian devil will yawn conspicuously, pretending to be unconcerned by the threat. Tasmanian devils are solitary, but they are not territorial.

How Concerned Should We Be?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Tasmanian Devil as “endangered.” In the late 1800s, many Tasmanian devils were eradicated because farmers believed they were killing livestock. This mistaken belief almost caused the species to disappear, until the government protected it in 1941. Humans in cars are a much more modern danger. More than 2,000 Tasmanian devils become roadkill every year. Recently, a new and far more serious threat has emerged to put the remaining population of Tasmanian devils in great peril. “Devil facial tumor disease,” a highly contagious cancer transmitted when one Tasmanian devil bites another, has caused populations of the animals to plummet—from around 150,000 animals in the mid-1990s to between 20,000 and 50,000 in 2006. The disease, first reported in 1996, has since spread rapidly through 60 percent of Tasmania. It causes large tumors to develop all over a Tasmanian devil’s face and neck, making it impossible for the animal to eat. Animals afflicted with the disease quickly starve to death. It is the threat of this mysterious and deadly disease that led to the animal’s “endangered” designation in 2008.

What's Being Done?

The threat to Tasmanian devils posed by facial tumor disease is a threat to Tasmania’s entire ecosystem. Tasmanian devils have helped keep non-native predators like foxes and cats from establishing a foothold on the island. Scientists fear that if Tasmanian devils disappear, it could spell the end of some of Tasmania’s other native species—lizards, ground-dwelling birds and a dozen or more mammals unique to the island. Recently, researchers have found a possible link to the cancer epidemic: high concentrations of chemicals used in flame retardants have been found in Tasmanian devils’ bloodstreams. To protect the species while research continues, the Tasmanian state government has begun sequestering animals that have not yet contracted the cancer. Healthy animals have been captured and transported to the Australian mainland for captive breeding programs to assure that Tasmanian devils can survive. To date, only the population in the far northwest of Tasmania are unaffected by the disease, and scientists are pinning their hopes on this population to help save the species. To protect the Tasmanian devil on the roadways, the government has begun an aggressive public education campaign to get drivers to slow down between dusk and dawn, when Tasmanian devils often feed on the carcasses of other roadkill found on the island’s highways.


Bite of the Tasmanian Devil

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