Lifeform of the week: Tasmanian devils are not quiet, cuddly vegetarians

Up until fairly recently I had assumed that the Tasmanian devil was a mythical creature, like a unicorn or a narwhal*, invented by the people at Warner Brothers. Luckily, a friend was kind enough to rescue me from this fog of ignorance and explain that the devils not only exist, but that they exist, as their name implies, in Tasmania.

Looney Tunes character Taz via Wikia

It would be an entertaining twist if I could report that Tasmanian devils are quiet, cuddly, and sociable vegetarians, but I am bound by the facts and must therefore admit that their temperament is pretty accurately depicted by the animated character seen in Bugs Bunny cartoons of yore. The devils were given their name after European settlers observed their characteristic growling, snarling, and baring of sharp teeth. The animals are nocturnal scavengers and quarrel ferociously over their finds with others of their species. During my research for this article I listened to some audio recordings of the animals and found them to be evocative of scenes in The Exorcist.

What They Eat
As scavengers, the devils have a wide diet including but not limited to snakes, birds, fish, amphibians, small mammals, and various carrion. They’ve been known to eat animals caught in hunters’ snares, and occasionally to make off with poultry from farms, as well as helping themselves to larger livestock that were already dead.† Tasmanian devils are similarly unfussy as to cuts of meat and will eat any and all parts of their food – hair, organs, and even bones. They are, however, strictly carnivorous.

Tasmania is an archipelago of more than 300 islands, 150 miles south-east of mainland Australia. Image Credit: NASA Visible Earth

Where They Live
Tasmanian devils were once found on the Australian mainland but have since gone extinct there.‡ Today they exist in the wild only on the island of Tasmania. They travel at night in search of food. Distance traveled varies with availability of food but has been recorded at as much as 10 miles.

Birth and Death
Like kangaroos and opossums, Tasmanian devils are marsupials and females are equipped with pouches to carry their newly born offspring. Females give birth to 20 to 30 little devils at a time but bodily resources only allow for the survival of 4. Often times just 2 or 3 make it to adulthood. The animals are ready to go it alone at about 8 months and typically live in the wild for about 5 years.

Some Bad News
While their numbers climbed after they achieved protected species status in 1941, the devils encountered a new threat in the mid 90’’s – Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). The disease is a contagious cancer that causes the growth of large lumps on the animal’s face. These impede eating and can eventually lead to starvation. Before you start feeling too sad, let me assure you that scientists are already on it, working with both captive breeding and genomic research in order to save the beasties from extinction. With any luck, you will still be able to see a devil on your next trip to Tasmania.

Can They Hurt You?
The Tasmanian devil has a powerful jaw and can deliver a wallop of a bite relative to its size. However they’re not that big, ranging from about 9 to 26 lbs.§ You’ll probably be fine as long as you don’t try to pick them up and incorporate them into your vacation photos.

Road sign in Tasmania. Where else? Image Credit: BotheredByBees

* Kidding, kidding. Narwhals are real and will possibly be discussed at length here at some future date.

† Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife website praises the Tasmanian devils’ consumption of farm carcasses as a way of maintaining agricultural hygiene (nobody likes blowflies). However, farmers once believed that the devils were killing livestock and made attempts to eradicate the perceived pests until Tasmanian devils were made a protected species in 1941.

‡ There is some debate as to when this extinction occurred. Some have claimed that it was as recent as 500 years ago. However, the current opinion is that they disappeared from Australia somewhere between 3000 and 4000 years ago, which would correspond to the introduction of dingoes from Asia. In any event, Tasmanian devils were already absent from the Australian mainland by the time Europeans showed up, so for once we can’t blame them.

§ For what it’s worth, they are still the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial.

February 20, 2011

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