What is the Tasmanian devil?
These famously feisty mammals have a coat of coarse brown or black fur and a stocky profile that gives them the appearance of a baby bear. Most have a white stripe or patch on their chest and light spots on their sides or rear end. They have long front legs and shorter rear legs, giving them a lumbering, piglike gait.
The Tasmanian devil is the world's largest carnivorous marsupial, reaching 30 inches in length and weighing up to 26 pounds, although its size will vary widely depending on where it lives and the availability of food. Its oversize head houses sharp teeth and strong, muscular jaws that can deliver, pound for pound, one of the most powerful bites of any mammal.
Once abundant throughout Australia, Tasmanian devils are now found only on the island state of Tasmania. Their Tasmanian range encompasses the entire island, although they are partial to coastal scrublands and forests. Biologists speculate that their extinction on the mainland about 400 years ago may be linked to the introduction of Asian dogs—or dingoes.
Tasmanian devils have a reputation for flying into a rage when threatened by a predator, fighting for a mate, or defending a meal. Early European settlers dubbed them “devils” after witnessing displays such as teeth-baring, lunging, and an array of spine-chilling guttural growls. These behaviors also inspired the Looney Tunes portrayal of Taz, the Tasmanian devil, as a snarling lunatic.
But this reputation might not be totally fair. Though the Tasmanian devil may seem aggressive, many of these behaviors are merely feeding rituals or fear-induced.
Diet and behavior
Tasmanian devils are strictly carnivorous, surviving on small prey such as frogs, birds, fish, and insects. They prefer scavanging to hunting and frequently feast communally on carrion. They are at their most rowdy when jockeying for position on a large carcass. Like other marsupials, when they are well-fed, their tails swell with stored fat.
Devils are solitary and nocturnal, spending their days alone in hollow logs, caves, or burrows, and emerging at night to feed. They use their long whiskers and excellent sense of smell and sight to avoid predators and locate prey and carrion. They'll eat pretty much anything they can get their teeth on, and when they do find food, they are voracious, consuming everything—including hair, organs, and bones.
Mothers give birth after about three weeks of pregnancy to 20 or 30 very tiny young. These hairless, raisin-size babies crawl up the mother's fur and into her pouch. However, the mother has only four nipples, so only a handful of babies survive. Infants emerge from the pouch after about four months, are generally weaned by the sixth month, and on their own by the eighth.
Threats to survival
Efforts in the late 1800s to eradicate Tasmanian devils—considered to be livestock-killing pests—were nearly successful. In 1941, the government made devils a protected species, and their numbers have grown steadily since.
Tragically, though, a catastrophic illness discovered in the mid-1990s has killed tens of thousands of Tasmanian devils. Called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), this rapidly spreading condition is a rare contagious cancer that causes large lumps to form around the animal's mouth and head, making it hard for it to eat. The animal eventually starves to death. As a result, Tasmania’s devil population has plummeted from 140,000 to as few as 20,000, and the species is now classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The Tasmanian devil is a protected species in Australia. In 2003, the Tasmanian state government launched its Save the Tasmanian Devil Program as an official response to the threat of extinction posed by DFTD. This response includes sequestering populations where the disease has not yet appeared and focusing on captive breeding programs to save the species from extinction. Researchers have also been working to develop a vaccine for the disease.
There’s reason to believe the Tasmanian devil can be saved. In 2015, Menna Jones, an expert on the species at the University of Tasmania in Hobart and National Geographic grantee, observed that some devils seemed to be adapting to the disease. “We’ve seen seven, possibly eight animals whose tumors have regressed,” she said. she said. “The patterns we are seeing give hope.”