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 are the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world today; they’re 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. 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 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 Tasmania, though they prefer forests and coastal scrublands. Here they create dens in hollow logs, under rocks, in wombat burrows and in caves.
Tasmanian Devil behaviour
Primarily nocturnal, carrion (dead animal) eaters, Tasmanian Devils can travel up to 16km per night to find a carcass or other source of 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 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 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.
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 when they're 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.