Tasmanian Devil: a Unique and Fascinating Creature

Everything you need to know about this famous marsupial at risk of extinction

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By Alex

tasmanian devil

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a remarkable carnivorous marsupial, native to the island of Tasmania, Australia. Known for their stocky build, inky black fur, and distinctive white chest markings, these nocturnal creatures exhibit a fearless and solitary disposition. They feed primarily on carrion and have a unique reproductive system.

Unfortunately, their survival is under constant threat, mainly due to Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), a contagious cancer. Conservation initiatives, including captive breeding programs and disease management, are imperative to protect these iconic marsupials and ensure their continued existence in the wild.

What kind of animal is the Tasmanian Devil?

The Tasmanian devil, scientifically known as Sarcophilus harrisii, is an indigenous marsupial mammal belonging to the Dasiuridae family. Formerly distributed throughout Australia, it is now exclusively found in Tasmania, an island south of the Australian mainland.

The risk of extinction is linked to a particular form of cancer, facial cancer, which is transmissible.

Meaning of the name

The name “Tasmanian devil” is derived from its prominent black fur, which early explorers associated with darkness and malevolence. Additionally, these creatures are notorious for their chilling vocalizations, especially during mating and feeding disputes.

Where does the Tasmanian Devil live?

As already mentioned, the Tasmanian devil was once an animal that was widespread practically everywhere. Today, however, it is found only in Tasmania, an island located south of Australia. It prefers wooded areas, pastures and moors, while it is not found in areas affected by deforestation.

In theory, this mammal is however also able to live in dry and forest areas, using caves, hollow trees and burrows built by other animals as shelter.

Characteristics of the Tasmanian Devil

This marsupial boasts a size comparable to a large cat, featuring a robust, stocky build. Depending on age and dietary habits, its length ranges from 52 to 80 cm, plus an additional 30 cm for the tail.

Males typically weigh between 5 to 12 kg, while females range from 4 to 8 kg. Its coat is ebony in color, with a sizeable head supported by a sturdy neck. The elongated muzzle houses a formidable jaw, capable of delivering a lethal bite, even capable of crushing bones with its molars.

Similar to kangaroos, Tasmanian devils possess a pouch on their belly, where they shelter their offspring for approximately four months after birth. Their front paws feature 5 toes, longer than the hind paws, which have 4 toes, each armed with sturdy claws. These creatures are renowned for their vocalizations, especially during the mating season and when vying for food.

Reproduction of the Tasmanian Devil

During the breeding season, male Tasmanian devils engage in competition for dominance over females, which reach sexual maturity at the age of 2. These creatures are not monogamous, and a female may mate with multiple males. Typically, mating occurs in March, with offspring born just 21 days later.

Typically, a female gives birth to a substantial litter of 20 to 40 cubs, but ultimately only 3 to 4 survive, as the female possesses four breasts. Newborns are remarkably small, similar to grains of rice. Following birth, the young find refuge in their mother’s pouch for their first four months, with weaning taking place around 5 to 6 months. Consequently, these pups achieve independence around December.

On average, the Tasmanian devil’s lifespan is 5 years.

The unique Tasmanian devil’s vocalizations

An intriguing trait setting this creature apart is its eerie vocalizations. It frequently emits hair-raising screams, likely why early settlers of the region, unnerved by these otherworldly sounds, dubbed the animal the “devil.”

Tasmanian devils frequently growl and produce these unsettling sounds, particularly when feeding, during the mating season, and when prey eludes them.

Typical behaviour

The behavior of Tasmanian Devils is a fascinating blend of nocturnal habits and remarkable adaptability:

  • Nocturnal and Solitary Lifestyle: These marsupials are primarily nocturnal animals, meaning they are most active during the night. They spend their daylight hours resting in dens. When night falls, they emerge to hunt for food, displaying their remarkable adaptability to the darkness.
  • Frustration and Vocalizations: If their prey manages to elude them, Tasmanian Devils express their frustration through distinctive vocalizations. These vocalizations are characterized by grunts, guttural vibrations, and sometimes even piercing screams, adding to their mystique.
  • Aggressive Interactions: Tasmanian Devils have a reputation for interacting with others of their kind in an aggressive manner, particularly when competing for food. However, unlike many territorial species, they are not inherently territorial creatures.
  • Climbing and Swimming Abilities: Remarkably, Tasmanian Devils, particularly when they are young, exhibit agility in climbing trees. Their climbing abilities allow them to access new food sources and escape potential threats. Additionally, these creatures are proficient swimmers, capable of swimming at speeds of up to 24 km/h for extended periods, making them versatile in various terrains.
  • Yawning and Teeth Display: When confronted by other living beings, including members of their own species, Tasmanian Devils often respond by yawning, a behavior that includes the conspicuous display of their powerful teeth.
  • Biofluorescence: An intriguing characteristic of Tasmanian Devils is their biofluorescence. They emit ultraviolet light, appearing as a mesmerizing blue glow in the absence of visible light. This phenomenon adds an enigmatic dimension to their already unique attributes.

What does the Tasmanian Devil eat?

The Tasmanian Devil primarily consumes carrion, often leading to gatherings of multiple individuals competing for these food sources with raucous vocalizations like screams and growls. Their foraging activity is particularly active at night. When carrion isn’t available, Tasmanian Devils adapt by feasting on a variety of foods, including larvae, insects, snakes, tubers, fruits, and roots.

Notably, in a single day, a Tasmanian Devil can devour up to 40% of its own weight, efficiently storing the fat obtained from its prey in its tail. This strategic adaptation aids in their survival.

In the wild, Tasmanian Devils have natural predators such as owls, eagles, and the tiger quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), a marsupial cat indigenous to Australia. These predators occasionally pose a threat to the Tasmanian Devil, influencing their behavior and feeding habits.

Tasmanian devil standing
A rare image of a standing Tasmanian devil.

How strong is the bite of the Tasmanian Devil?

The Tasmanian devil’s bite is the strongest of any mammal in the world, in proportion to its size. Proportionally, the Tasmanian devil has a bite that is as much as 62% more powerful than that of a lion.

First of all, having a very large head, it can open its jaws up to 80 degrees wide. Furthermore, the jaw muscles are very powerful, so much so that they have such strength that they can even break bones. To give you an idea, they even manage to break livestock cages.

His teeth grow throughout his life, and through hunting he manages to file them down and keep them always performing.

How many Tasmanian Devils are living today?

In Tasmania there are around 25 thousand specimens. In 2008, the IUCN included the species in the Red List among those in danger of extinction.

One of the main causes that puts the continuity of this species at risk is the Devil Facial Tumor Disease. In the late 1990s, the species was in fact decimated by this rare and transmissible form of cancer. This tumor has reduced the number of specimens of the species to the point of putting their very survival at risk.

In May 2008, in fact, the Tasmanian devil was officially classified as an endangered species and the Tasmanian regional government activated programs to combat the spread of the phenomenon. Among the main programs in this sense is the “Save the Tasmanian Devil Program”.

Extinction risks

Originally, the Tasmanian Devil inhabited various regions across Australia. However, due to predation by the dingo, a type of wild dog, it eventually became isolated on the island of Tasmania, from which it derives its name. Up until the mid-1990s, the Tasmanian Devil’s population numbered between 130,000 to 150,000 individuals. Tragically, this changed when a rare and transmissible form of cancer known as tasmanian devil facial tumor decimated their numbers.

Today, estimates suggest that there are now fewer than 25,000 Tasmanian Devils remaining in the wild. Recognizing the severity of this decline, in 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorized the Tasmanian Devil as a species threatened with extinction, placing it on the Red List.

Besides facial tumors, other significant threats to these marsupials include road accidents, human hunting driven by fear, and competition for food from species like dogs, cats, and red foxes. These challenges collectively jeopardize the survival of this iconic species.

Tasmanian devil cartoon

When people hear of the Tasmanian Devil, many immediately conjure thoughts of the iconic character created by Warner Bros and featured in the Looney Tunes franchise.

Taz, as this character is famously known, made its debut in 1957, but was temporarily retired in 1964. For nearly three decades, it remained in relative obscurity until rediscovered in the Warner Bros archives. Following some modifications, Taz was reintroduced in the 1990s.

Upon its return, Taz’s popularity in the “Tazmania” series skyrocketed, swiftly establishing it as one of the most beloved figures within the Looney Tunes universe.

Such widespread acclaim prompted the production company to secure copyright for the term “Tasmanian devil.” Warner Bros entered into an agreement with the Tasmanian government, entailing an annual payment by the Tasmanian authorities to Warner Bros. In exchange, they were granted the right to employ the character Taz in promotional initiatives within the tourism sector.

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