The Fascinating World of the Tasmanian Devil: Everything You Need to Know

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The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), known as the largest living carnivorous marsupial, boasts a sturdy and squat physique, complemented by a notably broad head and a stout tail. This creature is adorned with primarily black fur, interspersed with white patches on its rear, sides, and chest; though their designs differ, some might be entirely black.

Their size is influenced by their diet and habitat, with adult males, typically larger than females, weighing as much as 14 kg and measuring around 30 cm tall at the shoulder. In nature, their lifespan extends to about six years.

Though now exclusive to Tasmania, these devils once roamed mainland Australia, a fact supported by widespread fossil discoveries. The mainland lost its devil population roughly 3,500 years ago—well before the Europeans arrived. The exact reason for their mainland extinction remains a matter of speculation, but it’s likely a combination of arid conditions, shifting climate patterns, the proliferation of dingoes, and possibly diseases—factors mitigated in Tasmania by the Bass Strait. A testament to their historic interaction with the Australian aborigines is a 7,000-year-old necklace crafted from 178 perforated Tasmanian devil teeth found in a burial site. Among the several names the Aboriginal people have for the devil, “poorininah” stands out. (source: The Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania)

These nocturnal animals primarily inhabit the dense forests, coastal scrublands, and grasslands of Tasmania. They are well-adapted to a variety of habitats and can be found at different altitudes.

Tasmanian Devils are carnivorous scavengers and opportunistic hunters. Their diet consists mainly of carrion, but they also feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and even fruits. They play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance by consuming dead and decaying animals.

Tasmanian Devils are known for their aggressive and feisty nature. They have a distinctive vocalization, often described as a series of bone-chilling screeches, growls, and snarls. They are solitary animals, except during the breeding season.

tasmanian-devil-babies
Quite few zoos round the world have in-house breeding programs for the Tasmanian Devil. Credit Taronga Zoo

Breeding usually occurs between March and May. Female Tasmanian Devils have a unique reproductive system, with a bifurcated pouch that holds up to 30 tiny, underdeveloped young called joeys. Only a few of them survive and make it to the mother’s four teats, where they attach and continue to grow for several months.

Devil Facial Tumor Disease

The Tasmanian Devil population has faced significant threats in recent years. The emergence of a contagious cancerous facial tumor disease, known as Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), has caused a dramatic decline in their numbers. Due to conservation efforts, including captive breeding programs, monitoring, and research, the species is listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List.

The Tasmanian Devil population has indeed encountered substantial threats in recent years, with one of the most significant being the emergence of Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). This contagious cancerous facial tumor disease has had a devastating impact on the Tasmanian Devil population, leading to a dramatic decline in their numbers.

Devil Facial Tumor Disease is a unique and highly transmissible disease that affects Tasmanian Devils. It is characterized by the development of large tumors, primarily on the face and mouth, which eventually interfere with feeding and can lead to death. The disease is spread through direct contact, such as biting during mating or fighting, and the tumors can grow rapidly.

Since its discovery in the mid-1990s, Devil Facial Tumor Disease has spread rapidly throughout Tasmania, causing a significant decline in the Tasmanian Devil population. The disease has had a severe impact on their survival, leading to localized extinctions in some areas.

To combat the decline and ensure the survival of the species, various conservation efforts have been implemented. Captive breeding programs have been established to safeguard genetically diverse populations of Tasmanian Devils. These programs aim to breed healthy individuals in captivity and reintroduce them into the wild, thereby increasing the population and genetic diversity. Devils have been sent to, and are now part of captive breeding programs in zoos on mainland Australia, in an attempt to keep them safe from disease.

Monitoring and research play a crucial role in understanding the disease and its impact on the Tasmanian Devil population. Scientists and conservationists closely monitor the spread and prevalence of Devil Facial Tumor Disease, track the health and behavior of the remaining individuals, and conduct research to develop effective management strategies.

As a result of these conservation efforts, the Tasmanian Devil is currently listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. This classification highlights the critical status of the species and the urgent need for continued conservation actions. It also emphasizes the importance of ongoing research, disease management, and habitat protection to ensure the long-term survival of the Tasmanian Devil.

Tasmanian Devil captive in Victoria breeding program

Despite the challenges posed by Devil Facial Tumor Disease, the collaborative efforts of scientists, conservation organizations, and the Tasmanian government provide hope for the future of the species. By implementing robust conservation measures, raising awareness, and supporting ongoing research, there is a chance to reverse the decline and secure a sustainable future for the iconic Tasmanian Devil.

Tasmanian Devils hold great cultural and ecological significance in Tasmania. They are an emblem of the state and play a vital role in the ecosystem as scavengers, helping to clean up carcasses and prevent the spread of disease.

Scientists continue to study the Tasmanian Devil to better understand their behavior, genetic diversity, and the dynamics of DFTD. Efforts are underway to find a cure or develop a vaccine for the disease.

Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) Fact Sheet: Bibliography & Resources

LibGuides: This resource provides a bibliography and various resources related to the Tasmanian Devil, including scientific articles and publications. It can be found on the LibGuides website.

Research on Tasmanian devil offers new insights into tackling human cancer | NSF: The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a good resource for research on the Tasmanian Devil including that which offers new insights into tackling human cancer. Their website provides documents, reports, and other resources related to this research.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania provides information about Tasmanian Devils on their website. It includes details about the historical distribution of Tasmanian Devils and their current status.

Where to see the Tasmanian Devil

Taronga Zoo, Sydney and Adelaide Zoo

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