The Tasmanian Devil: The World's Largest Carnivorous Marsupial

By Nathaniel Whelan on March 12 2020 in Environment

A Tasmanian devil. Image credit: Matthias Appel. Flickr.com
A Tasmanian devil. Image credit: Matthias Appel. Flickr.com
  • A female Tasmanian devil can birth up to 50 babies—or imps—at once.
  • High-pitch screeching and vicious growling regularly accompany a Tasmanian devil feeding frenzy.
  • Many Tasmanian devils suffer from Devil Facial Tumor Disease, a contagious cancer that disfigures the face.

Audiences familiar with the Looney Tunes can name a handful of characters and the inspiration behind each. Bugs is obviously a bunny. Daffy is a duck. Even Marvin the Martian is identifiable as a mysterious extraterrestrial being. But who is the slobbering, tornado-legged creature named Taz? What exactly is a Tasmanian devil and how much of his manic personality is based on fact? This article will explore the animal behind the looniest of cartoon characters.

Home And Habitat

As their name indicates, the Tasmanian devil—or the Sarcophilus harrisii—is native to the island state of Tasmania, located off the southern coast of Australia. They roam the entire island, but prefer to remain close to coastal scrublands, agricultural areas, and heavily wooded areas such as forests.  

Birth And Infancy

Life for baby Tasmanian devils often begin with death. After approximately three weeks of pregnancy, a mother can birth anywhere between twenty to fifty devil pups known as imps. These imps are pink and hairless things, often underdeveloped and measuring only three inches in length. Similar to other marsupials like kangaroos, the mother has a pouch in which she carries her young. Once they are born, every imp must race to the pouch and compete for one of the mother’s nipples. Because there are only four, most of the babies will not survive past this stage.

Each remaining imp will stay latched to the mother from anywhere between three or four months. When the mother travels, they will often get dragged underneath, still attached. When the young finally exit the pouch, they ride on their mother’s back. When they’re not traveling, the imps stay in a secretive den until they no longer rely on their mother’s milk. They become independent at nine months and are fully mature at two.  

Size And Appearance

          Two devils, one without any white markings. Around 16% of wild devils have no markings. Image credit: Willis Lim / Wikimedia.org

An adult Tasmanian devil can weigh 26 pounds and grow up to 30 inches in length; however, its final size depends on its specific habitat and the availability of food.

Most people will argue that they resemble a dog or even a small bear. They have coarse brown or black fur and tend to have white markings on the chest and behind. Their front legs are much longer than their rear ones. This mismatched pair of limbs gives them an awkward, lurching waddle. They also have somewhat stocky bodies, not unlike the squashed triangle shape of Taz.  

Lifestyle

Tasmanian devils are solitary creatures. Just like the imps safeguarded in protective dens, they spend all day cramped in hollow spaces like caves and burrows, the only difference is now they are alone. As nocturnal animals, they spend most of their time sleeping, emerging only at night for one purpose: to feed.  

Food And Eating Rituals

After leaving their daytime nooks, Tasmanian devils travel long distances—up to 10 miles—in search of food. They do not eat plants, but rather feast on smaller animals such as reptiles, birds, fish, and insects. As scavengers, they even eat abandoned carrion. They use their excellent sense of smell to locate prey and to avoid predators.

Even though they prefer solitude during the day, Tasmanian devils come together at night to feed on carcasses and other delicious finds. While the “devil” in their name seems something crafted out of myth, it was in truth given to them by early European settlers who noted its shocking accuracy. When food is found, they turn into maniacal monsters with blazing appetites. Dinner time is a vicious and noisy affair. Snarling, growling, and high-pitched screeching is the music that accompanies these frenzies. It is also during these communal gatherings when Tasmanian devils fight for dominance.  

Their muscular jaws allow them to devour their entire meal, including fur. Sharp teeth even give them the ability to crush and scarf down the bones. If the expression “lick the plate clean” could be associated with any animal, it would be the Tasmanian devil.  

Threat Of Extinction

A road sign telling drivers that there may be devils nearby. Image credit: Peter Shanks/Wikimedia.org

Fossils prove that Tasmanian devils once thrived in Australia, but biologists theorize that their time on the mainland came to an end due to dingoes. Consequently, dingoes do not live on the island of Tasmania.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, farmers considered Tasmanian devils as pests, because they continuously ravaged and killed their chickens, sheep, and other livestock. To control their population, they were mercilessly hunted. Bounties almost guaranteed their complete annihilation, similar to the Tasmanian tiger which did become extinct in 1936.   

Tasmanian devils gained legal protection in 1941. Following the passing of this law, their population steadily recovered. Those lucky enough to die of natural causes live anywhere between 5 and 8 years.

Devil Facial Tumor Disease

Despite these early rising numbers, Tasmanian devils face a new and unexpected threat: Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). First observed in 1996, it is a vicious form of cancer that disfigures the face. Lumps prevent victims from eating regularly, so most starve to death before the cancer can take them. A contagious disease, it is transmitted through excessive biting of one another, which frequently occurs during the aforementioned feeding frenzies. In 1996, there was an estimated 150,000 Tasmanian devils living on Tasmania. By 2007, this number dropped an astounding 50%.  

A government-funded initiative and animal health experts are currently working to help the dwindling species, going so far as isolating those without cancer and introducing breeding programs to save them from extinction. Some scientists remain optimistic, claiming that their immune systems are adapting to combat the disease naturally. Others are plotting scenarios, predicting that DFTD might fade on its own. Regardless, Tasmanian devils remain officially endangered.  

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