Tasmanian Devils ~ feisty carnivorous marsupials


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

In recent times a few captive breeding programs have been set up on mainland Australian in the hope that captive breeding and release programs will be successful in reintroducing Tasmanian Devils back into the wild on mainland Australia.

It is thought that the devils became extinct on the mainland due to being killed off by dingoes, feral foxes, and dogs. There are no dingoes in Tasmania which appears to be the reason for their continued survival there.

Tasmanian devil Tasmania

Tasmanian Devils have had a very tough life suffering severely with 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.  

At one time they were regarded as a pest species in Tasmania and were trapped, poisoned, and shot which caused their numbers to decline very quickly.  In 1941 they were deemed a protected species and their numbers increased, however, they remain on the endangered species list (International Union of Conservationof 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. Tumours can also be found on their tails, and on internal organs (lungs, adrenal gland, kidneys, and liver).  

The disease was discovered in the 1990’s and devils will usually die within 12mths of contracting their first tumour. Tumours will also often grow inside their mouths, preventing them from eating and eventually they starve to death.

Despite the extensive research into DFTD, no treatment has been found to date. 

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

In order to suppress the disease devils diagnosed with DFTD are euthanised to prevent spread to other devils and passing on to their offspring.  DFTD has wiped out 90% of the population. 

Captive breeding enclosure programs in Tasmania and mainland Australia are successfully breeding DFTD free devils which are being released back into the wild in both Tasmania and mainland Australia. 

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 feeding only on meat such as wombats, wallabies, birds, snakes, small kangaroos, possums and carrion (dead animals), and bones. They are solitary animals but will often gather in groups to feed together.  

They have been labelled as the ‘Australian hyaena” due their noisy, scavenging, bone crushing teeth and habits.

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

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

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

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

Breeding season is between March – April. Gestation is around 21 days, when a female will give birth to up 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 4 joeys will survive as they will 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. 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 1 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. In 2008 Tassie Devils were listed as ‘Endangered’, at high risk of extinction in the wild by International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Devils play an important role in the ecosystem.  Being scavengers they 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
Enjoying a meal of pademelon at Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, Tasmania

Despite the successes in breeding out the DFTD and captive breeding programs, Tassie Devils are still in danger of extinction. Tassie Devils are very fond of roadkill and will often venture on to roads at night to feed on the available roadkill, and not be seen by oncoming cars and are becoming victims of roadkill themselves. They are still at risk of predation by dogs and foxes, and persecution by humans is still exists in some places.

Captive Breeding Programs for Tasmanian Devils

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

Devils@Cradle Mountain is a very 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 which are also endanger of extinction.  Devils @ Cradle is open for public viewing where one can see all three of Tasmania’s endangered carnivorous marsupials closeup and personal. A definite must if visiting Cradle Mountain National Park.

Aussie Ark began in 2011, in Barrington Tops, 130 km from Sydney in NSW. It was the first time that devils were reintroduced back into mainland Australia in over 3,000 years. Devils Ark is the largest conservation breeding program to save the endangered Tasmanian Devil. The climate and elevation of Barrington Tops is 1,350m and the perfect environment being very close to their usual Tasmanian habitat, being cool, wet and an abundance of vegetation.   Devils Ark opened with 44 resident devils. They have had great success over 7 successful breeding seasons producing over 300 healthy joeys without DFTD. 

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

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

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