Tasmanian Devils ~ feisty carnivorous marsupials

juvenile tassie devil in tree

The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), also known as the “Tassie Devil”, is a feisty, carnivorous marsupial. They are the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world.  They were once found throughout mainland Australia and Tasmania but became extinct on mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago.

Tasmanian devil in the rain. They have two protruding teeth and very sharp non-retractable claws
Tasmanian Devil in the rain. They have two protruding teeth and very sharp non-retractable claws.

It is thought that they were named ‘devil’ by early settlers in Tasmania due to the nocturnal screaming sounds they make. 

Australia has a few captive breeding programs. Specifically, in the hope that captive breeding and release programs will successfully reintroduce Tasmanian Devils back into the wild on mainland Australia.

Tasmanian devil Tasmania
Tasmanian Devil Diseases

Tasmanian devils became extinct on the mainland due to being killed off by dingoes, feral foxes, and dogs; however, there are no dingoes in Tasmania, which appear to be the reason for their continued survival there.

Tasmanian Devils have had a very tough life suffering severely from disease, which caused a significant decline in their population. Another factor why people didn’t like them was due to the ugliness of facial tumours.  

Initially, the Tasmanian Devils were considered a pest in Tasmania. Because of this, they were trapped, poisoned, and shot, causing their numbers to decline very quickly.  In 1941 they were declared a protected species, and their numbers increased. However, they remain on the endangered species list (International Union of Conservation of Nature, IUCN).

A pair of Tasmanian devils communicating which can be very noisy and aggressive
A pair of Tasmanian Devils communicating which can be very noisy and aggressive
Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)

DFTD is a transmissible cancer spread between devils by biting, feeding and play.  The tumours grow mainly on their faces and heads. However, tumours also grow on their tails and internal organs (lungs, adrenal gland, kidneys, and liver).  

The tumours were first diagnosed in the 1990s. Devils will usually die within 12mths of contracting their first tumour. However, tumours will also often grow inside their mouths, preventing them from eating, and eventually, they starve to death.

Despite the extensive research into DFTD, there is no treatment for this disease.

Devil Facial Tumour (image credit: Tasmanian Government Wildlife Dept)
Devil Facial Tumour (image credit: Tasmanian Government Wildlife Dept)

The only way to treat DFTD is to euthanise the animals, preventing the spread to other devils and passing the disease on to their offspring.  DFTD has wiped out 90% of the population. 

Large Devil Facial Tumour (photo curtesy of Australian Geographic)
Large Devil Facial Tumour (photo credit: Australian Geographic)
Habitat

Forests, woodlands, alpine areas, scrublands and cleared farmlands.

Diet

They are opportunistic, carnivorous predators and nocturnal hunters. They feed only on meat such as wombats, wallabies, birds, snakes, small kangaroos, possums and carrion (dead animals), and bones. Tasmanian devils are also solitary animals but often gather in groups to feed together.  

Their noisy, scavenging, bone-crushing teeth and habits have seen them labelled as the ‘Australian hyaena.”

Characteristics
  • Lifespan: 5-6 years in the wild, 8 years in captivity
  • Weight: males 7 – 14 kg, females smaller at 4 – 9 kg 
  • Size:  30cm tall, short and stocky animals with front legs longer than their hind legs
  • Speed: run at 4km/h and when chased up to 19km/h
  • They have four toes on their hind feet and five toes on their front feet
  • Terrestrial animals but will climb trees, and are good swimmers
  • Nocturnal animals but are often seen during the day lying in the sun 
  • Solitary animals apart from when they are mating and feeding
  • Strong sense of smell and can detect potential food source up to 1 metre away
  • With 42 teeth which grow continuously throughout their life, and an incredibly powerful jaw which can open up to 80° wide, they are able to bite through metal fencing and crunch up bones.
  • For their size they have one of the most powerful bites of any mammal in the world
Tasmanian devil showing off its mouth of teeth
Showing off its mouth of teeth
Appearance

They have dark brown/black fur with a white stripe across their chest and a small pointed face with long whiskers. Their claws are very sharp and non-retractable, helpful in digging, catching, and holding on to their prey. 

Very vocal animals with noises ranging between screaming, shrieking, and growling during their interactions can be quite confronting the first time one hears it.  It is due to this range of sounds that earned them the name ‘devil’. In addition, they appear with bite marks and scars from their aggressive interactions over their faces and bodies.

Lunch with their typical vocalisations, Devils@Cradle, Cradle Mountain Tasmania
Reproduction

The breeding season is between March – April. Gestation is around 21 days when a female will give birth to 30 joeys. The joeys are hairless, blind for three months and are the size of a peanut weighing around 0.18g – 0.29g. They will remain in the mother’s pouch and fight for the four available teats, those that don’t make it will not survive. Usually, only four joeys will survive as they remain attached to a teat for 100 days. 

 The joeys remain in the pouch for three months until they are old enough to leave the pouch and remain hidden in dens for a further three months. After that, their mother will bring food to her young in the den until they are old enough to fend for themselves, which is around twelve months. Females will begin breeding around one year old.

Young joeys firmly attached to teats inside their mother's pouch (photo credit: Aussie Ark)
Young joeys firmly attached to teats inside their mother’s pouch (photo credit: Aussie Ark)

Conservation

The devils are a protected species. However, in 2008 Tassie Devils were listed as ‘Endangered’, at high risk of extinction in the wild by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Devils play an essential role in the ecosystem.  They are scavengers and are very efficient eaters of carrion (dead animals) left behind by other animals and roadkill.  By them removing the dead and decaying carcasses, it keeps the environment clean and free of disease. They also feed on pests such as rats and mice, which keeps those populations down. 

Enjoying a meal of pademelon at Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, Tasmania
Captive Breeding Programs for Tasmanian Devils

Captive breeding enclosure programs in Tasmania and mainland Australia successfully breed DFTD free devils. Tumour free they are released into the wild in Tasmania and mainland Australia.  Tassie Devils are still in danger of extinction despite the successes in breeding out the DFTD and captive breeding programs. Tassie Devils are very fond of roadkill and will often venture onto roads at night to feed on the available roadkill, not be seen by oncoming cars and are becoming victims of roadkill themselves. In addition, they are still at risk of predation by dogs and foxes, and persecution by humans still exists in some places.

Captive breeding programs for wildlife ensure the safeguard of endangered species. There are several captive breeding programs in Tasmania and mainland Australia. Below are two such successful programs.

Devils Cradle

Devils@Cradle Mountain is a successful wildlife conservation facility in Cradle Mountain, Tasmania. It is not only a conservation sanctuary for Tassie Devils, but it also breeds Spotted-tailed quolls and Eastern Quolls, both of which are in danger of extinction. In addition, devils @ Cradle is open for public viewing, where one can see all three of Tasmania’s endangered carnivorous marsupials close up and personal. A definite must if visiting Cradle Mountain National Park.

A pair of very cute Tassie Devils, Tasmania
A pair of very cute Tassie Devils, Tasmania
Aussie Ark

Aussie Ark began in 2011 in Barrington Tops, 130 km from Sydney in NSW. The successful breeding programme at Aussie Ark enabled them to release Tasmanian Devils back onto mainland Australia in over 3,000 years. Devils Ark is the most extensive conservation breeding program to save the endangered Tasmanian Devil. The climate and elevation of Barrington Tops are 1,350 metres, and is the perfect environment is very close to their usual Tasmanian habitat, being cool, wet and an abundance of vegetation.   Devils Ark opened with 44 resident devils. Over seven breeding seasons, they have had great success producing over 300 healthy joeys without DFTD. 

Sources of information

https://www.aussieark.org.au/devil-ark/

https://devilsatcradle.com

https://www.livescience.com/tasmanian-devils-born-in-australia.html

https://ielc.libguides.com/sdzg/factsheets/tasmaniandevil/summary

saltwater crocodile
Prev Saltwater crocodile ~ a stealthy, deadly and lurking predator
Next Australian White Ibis ~ wetland to urbanland

One Comment

%d bloggers like this: