Photograph Credit: Mary Beth Ofstedal

The Ruffian from Down Under: The Tasmanian Devil

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It is rather common for cartoons to portray animals in an exaggerated fashion in order to entertain the viewers, yet the cartoon industry’s vicious portrayal of the Tasmanian devil may not be far from the truth. Early European settlers exploring Australia were taken aback by the land’s incredible variety of species, including unique animals such as kangaroos and koalas. However, among the animals which stood out was an aggressive marsupial which the settlers could not help but to label it “The Devil.” Although far from a demon, its surprising strength, belligerent nature, and haunting vocalizations certainly make the Tasmanian devil among the most intimidating of animals. This may come across as ironic considering its small size, but do not underestimate this small ruffian; a quick look into the world of this feisty marsupial reveals how it earned its unusual name, and how it carries on this title so well.

The Tasmanian devil is the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. Photograph Credit:

Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) are not particularly large mammals, reaching up to 31 inches in length and 26 lbs in weight. However, this makes them the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world. They are easily identified by their physical details, including a stocky body, long front legs and short rear legs, and a coat of coarse brown or black fur.[1] All things considered, they somewhat resemble baby bears. Devils possess noticeably long whiskers which aid in foraging for food as well as providing spatial information about the location of other devils during group feeding (this allows the animals to maintain a comfortable amount of space between each other in order to avoid disputes). Apart from the use of its whiskers, information gathering is mainly carried out through the senses of smell and hearing. Being nocturnal scavengers, Tasmanian devils have very little use for sight, instead relying on hearing and smell in order to locate their food. In fact, their sight is quite poor. Their eyes cannot detect color, seeing only in black and white, and are suited mainly for spotting moving objects.[2] Though small, these devils can bite down with great strength. It is their powerful jaws which allow them to crush and consume even bones, allowing them to obtain as much nutrition as possible from a meal.[3]

Tasmanian devils possess powerful jaws which allow them to crush and consume bones. Photograph Source:

Tasmanian devils were once abundant throughout Australia. Unfortunately, their numbers were drastically reduced and the species now occurs only in Tasmania.[4] This extinction is thought to have occurred around 400 years ago when dingoes (Asian dogs) were introduced into their environment and became a major threat for the species. The remaining devils in Tasmania were also threatened, but this time due to excessive hunting by European settlers who erroneously identified the animals as threats to their livestock. The animals were trapped and poisoned for more than a century, causing a great decline in their population numbers. Fortunately, the species became protected by law in June 1941, putting an end to the unnecessary hunting. The population in Tasmania has since rebounded and is now widespread, with the species present in a variety of habitats, from coasts and heaths to forests and even mountains.[5]

Tasmanian devils are by no means picky eaters; they will consume any meat provided to them by their current habitat. As such, they possess a wide list of possible prey, including wombats, platypus, echidnas, wallabies, fish, and many insects. Despite this great variety in prey, however, devils are predominately scavengers. Using their excellent sense of smell, Tasmanian devils will seek out the scent of carrion in order to obtain an easy meal. They take full advantage of the food available to them, as they can consume 40% of their body weight in just 30 minutes. Though this is typical for many other predators, devils need to consume at least 15% of their body weight each day, ensuring that their large meals are only sufficient for a few days before the search for more food begins.[6]

Tasmanian devils are powerful predators, but obtain much of their nutritional needs via scavenging. Photograph Source:

It is not rare for more than one devil to arrive at a carrion site. Although they are not very social, they can tolerate each other’s presence in this brief feeding time. However, the situation can easily become tense, as Tasmanian devils are well known for their fierce disposition. Devils which sense aggression from another individual may gape or “yawn” at each other. This behavior looks threatening, but is usually the instinctive result of fear or uncertainty. They may also produce a foul-smelling odor when under enough stress (much like a skunk) in order to deter their challenger. However, the Tasmanian devil’s most well known trait is its ability to produce a variety of frightening vocalizations, from harsh coughs and snarls to high pitched screeches. These intimidating sounds are intended to force the opposing devil to back away and thus lower the odds of an actual battle taking place. More aggressive devils can initiate a challenge by producing a sharp sneezing sound which usually comes right before the start of a fight.[7] Battles can become quite intense, and some individuals possess permanent scars on their bodies as a result. For the Tasmanian devil, even feeding can become a risky endeavor when other devils are around.

A female will become sexually mature at the age of 2 years. The mating season arrives with the month of March, and males soon begin to search for females.[8] However, it is not uncommon for several males to locate the same female. When this is the case, the males must deal with their competition the Tasmanian devil way: fighting. The competition for access to the female can become quite violent, with many older devils possessing scars and damaged ears from these intense bouts. Once a male manages to fend off its rivals, mating can finally take place. The victorious male subdues the female and bites her on her neck (the female will have developed extra fat at the back of her neck for this occasion) and the two then copulate. The female’s gestation period lasts 25-31 days before she gives birth to 20-30 young. The baby devils are tiny, weighing only 0.2 grams and possessing no hair, sight, or hearing. Yet even at this fragile stage, they are in a race for survival. Though there are many of them, their mother possesses only four teats. Ultimately, the majority of the litter will die while a maximum of four survive. Being marsupials, Tasmanian devils possess pouches where they keep their young. The babies crawl their way into their mother’s pouch where they can gain access to milk and develop safely for the next 100 days.[9] They leave the pouch after this period of growth and are fully weaned by the age of 6 months, becoming completely independent by December.[10] The group disperses, and the female soon returns to her solitary lifestyle.

Tasmanian devils are mainly solitary animals, but on several occasions will tolerate each other's presence. Photograph source:

Though there is currently a healthy population of these animals in Tasmania, the presence of the recently discovered Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) may threaten the survival of the entire species. As the name implies, the disease causes tumors to form in and around the mouth of the animals, interfering with feeding and eventually leading to death via starvation. The disease has proven to be an incredibly destructive force, affecting up to 95% of Tasmanian devils in some high density populations. Studies have led to the discovery that the disease is actually caused by an infectious cancer, one of only two types ever discovered, with the diseased cells being transferred by direct contact during mating. Unfortunately, Tasmanian devils are so genetically similar that their immune systems are not triggered by the cancer, which can prove disastrous for the future of the species. However, a program of transplanting disease-free individuals to the mainland to set up a security breeding population is underway.[11]

Though the small remaining population is threatened with extinction, it is still possible to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction. Photograph Credit: Mary Beth Ofstedal

The Tasmanian devil is a tough contender. It can be quite intimidating for its size and can become ferocious when it needs to be. From birth to mating season, competition is prevalent in the life of this strong creature. The species has been pushed to the edge of extinction and survived, even though the entire population now resides in the small island state of Tasmania. Now, yet again, the presence of a deadly new disease threatens the survival of the species once more. The species is certainly no stranger to the battle for survival as it seems to encounter danger again and again throughout its history. If anything has become clear from these events or the lifestyles of these animals, however, it is that these feisty marsupials simply refuse to surrender. Powerful, aggressive, and ready to take on the harsh challenges of its world, this small ruffian may live on for many more generations with man’s help.

[1] “Tasmanian Devil.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[2] “Tasmanian devils.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[3] “Tasmanian Devil.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[4] “Tasmanian Devil.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[5] “Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[6] “Tasmanian devils.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[7] “Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[8] “Sarcophilus harrisii.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[9] “Tasmanian devils.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[10] “Sarcophilus harrisii.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

[11] “Tasmanian devils.” Available from Internet; accessed 27 July 2011.

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On July 28, 2011
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