Tasmanian Devils

Last updated: Friday 27 May, 2016

(Sarcophilus harrisii)

Upset a Tasmanian devil and you’ll quickly learn how they got their name. When threatened, this stocky marsupial is prone to bare its sharp teeth, lunge and growl. This is also part of their typical feeding-time display.

A devil in the Tasmanian Midlands. Photo Matthew Newton (courtesy Tasmanian Land Conservancy).
A devil in the Tasmanian Midlands. Photo Matthew Newton (courtesy Tasmanian Land Conservancy).
It was this late-night, ‘otherworldly’ howl, heard by early European settlers, which lead to their common name. 

Tasmanian Devils are the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world today; they’re the size of a small dog, weighing 4kg to 14 kg, and standing about 30cm tall. For their size, they have one of the most powerful bites of any mammal! 

Devils have dark brown to black fur (sometimes with a hint of red-brown), with a large white stripe across their breast and the odd spot on their sides. Their faces are compact, with long whiskers, dark eyes and pink on the inner ears. 

Like other marsupials, such as Antechinus, they store fat in their tails in times of plenty, to draw on when food is scarce. Their legs are stocky and powerful. With front legs longer than hind legs, they walk a little like a pig. Surprisingly, Tasmanian Devils, especially when young, are agile tree climbers. 

Photo Matthew Newton (courtesy Tasmanian Land Conservancy).
Photo Matthew Newton (courtesy Tasmanian Land Conservancy).
The population has suffered recent, rapid declines, and they’re currently listed as Endangered – at high risk of extinction in the wild – according to both national and state legislation.

Where do Tasmanian Devils live?

Once Tasmanian Devils were found all over Australia. It’s possible that the introduction of the Dingo in pre-European times led to their extinction on mainland Australia. 

They now inhabit most of Tasmanian, though they prefer forests and coastal scrublands. Here, they create dens in hollow logs, under rocks, in wombat burrows and in caves. 

Behaviour

Primarily nocturnal, carrion (dead animal) eaters Tasmanian Devils can travel up to 16 km per night to find a carcass or other source of food. They can also be predators, eating small birds, snake, fish and insects.  

Rowena Hamer, a Univeristy of Tasmania PhD Candidate, conducting research with devils in the Midlands. Photo Cesar Peñaherrera Palma.
Rowena Hamer, a Univeristy of Tasmania PhD Candidate, conducting research with devils in the Midlands. Photo Cesar Peñaherrera Palma.
Typically solitary, a carcass is one of the few things that will bring them together communally. Fighting always ensues, as individuals jockey for position. They certainly don’t waste food, eating the bones, hair, organs and muscle of the carcass. They’ll even eat spoiled or rotting meat. 

Devils mate once a year. The female will give birth to more than 20 rice-grain sized young, but given she has only four teats only a few will survive. Being a marsupial, the teats are in the female’s pouch, where she suckles the young for four months. 

She then carries them on her back for another few months, and they’re fully grown at nine months. Tasmanian Devils can live five to eight years, though in the wild it's rare to find any older than three or four years.

Threats

In the 1800s there was a concerted effort by Tasmanian farmers to eradicate the species, which were thought to kill livestock. While they’re unlikely to take sheep and larger stock, they do take poultry and clean up carcasses of dead stock.

A one-year old male devil is released after tagging in the Tasmanian Midlands. Photo Cesar Peñaherrera Palma.
A one-year old male devil is released after tagging in the Tasmanian Midlands. Photo Cesar Peñaherrera Palma.
While thousands of Tasmanian Devils were killed, thankfully they didn’t suffer the same fate as the Tasmanian Tiger. Devils are now a protected species, but their survival is threatened by something far more insidious. 

Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a contagious disease discovered in the mid-1990s. Individuals pick up DFTD through fighting and mating. Lumpy tumours form around the head and neck, growing rapidly so that the animal finds it hard to eat. 

An individual can die of starvation within six months of symptoms showing. Tens of thousands of Tasmanian Devils have died from DFTD, and it’s this ongoing outbreak that has caused species to be classified as Endangered under Australian and Tasmanian legislation.

Unfortunately, Tasmanian devils are also often struck by vehicles. Often they're hit on the side of the road eating carrion that was itself the result of a collision. While they have few natural predators, eagles and quolls may predate on the young. Habitat destruction adds another stress to the species’ persistence. Now the disease is spread across almost all of Tasmania and the population has little natural resistance.

What’s Bush Heritage doing?

We have Tasmanian Devils on all of our reserves on the Apple Isle: Friendly Beaches, The Liffey Valley Reserves (Coal Mine Creek, Drys Bluff, Liffey River and Oura Oura), South Esk Pine and on the Tasmanian Midlands partnership properties, though the DFTD is prevalent in these areas. 

On these properties we protect the species' habitat and manage feral cat populations, which compete with the Devils for food. We're also working to reduce speed limits around our reserves.

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