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Tassie Devils at Healesville Sanctuary. Photo Steve Parish.
Tassie Devils at Healesville Sanctuary. Photo Steve Parish.

Tasmanian Devils

Scientific name: Sarcophilus harrisii

Tasmanian Devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world and, for their size, have one of the most powerful bites of any mammal!

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

It was this late-night, ‘otherworldly’ howl, heard by early European settlers, which led to its common name.

Tasmanian Devils feeding at Healesville Sanctuary. Photo Steve Parish.

Tasmanian Devils are the size of a small dog, weighing 4kg to 14kg, and standing about 30cm tall.

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.

Tasmanian Devil. Photo Matthew Newton (courtesy Tasmanian Land Conservancy).


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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.

The population has suffered recent, rapid declines, and they’re currently listed as Endangered – at high risk of extinction in the wild – according to state and national legislation, as well as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Where do Tassie 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 Tasmania, though they prefer forests and coastal scrublands. Here they create dens in hollow logs, under rocks, in wombat burrows and in caves.

Rowena Hamer, a Univeristy of Tasmania PhD Candidate, conducting research with devils in the Midlands. Photo Cesar Peñaherrera Palma.

Tasmanian Devil behaviour

Primarily nocturnal, carrion (dead animal) eaters, devils can travel up to 16km per night to find food. They can also be predators, eating small birds, snake, fish and insects.

Typically solitary, a carcass is one of the few things that will bring devils together. Fighting always follows, 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.

A Tasmanian Devil with carcass. Photo Bruce Thomson.

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 to Tassie Devils

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.

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 it up through fighting and mating. Lumpy tumours form around the head and neck, growing rapidly so that the animal finds it hard to eat.

A vocal Tasmanian Devil. Photo Steve Parish.

An individual can die of starvation within six months of symptoms showing. Tens of thousands of Tasmanian Devils have died from DFTD, which is the main reason they are endangered.

Unfortunately, Tasmanian Devils are also often struck by vehicles when they're on the side of the road eating carrion, which also resulted from 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.

What's Bush Heritage doing?

We have devils on all our Tasmanian reserves: Friendly Beaches, Liffey Valley Reserves, South Esk Pine and on Midlands Conservation Partnership properties, though DFTD is present in these areas.

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

Donate today to help us continue this and other vital conservation work.

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