Educational Series: Tasmanian Devils: Long-Persecuted and in Need of Help

By Nick Engelfried
Few animals are as widely misunderstood as the Tasmanian devil, a species made famous by Looney Tunes, but which bears little resemblance to its cartoon namesake. Found only on the remote island of Tasmania off the southern tip of Australia, Tasmanian devils are in fact shy and secretive animals who play an important role in the local ecosystem. Rather than being the fierce, voracious predators of popular imagination, they are mainly scavengers who keep to themselves unless threatened. These incredible animals also have an uncertain future, and are in need of our help if they are to continue populating Tasmania’s forests in decades ahead.

Reaching a length of about two feet including the tail, and weighing up to around 30 pounds, Tasmanian devils are approximately the size of a smallish dog. Despite their relatively small stature, however, they are the largest native carnivorous mammals still surviving in Australia, a continent that once supported much larger predators like the Tasmanian tiger and members of the extinct genus Thylacoleo, or “marsupial lions.” Weighing in at over 200 pounds in some cases, marsupial lions lived during the Pleistocene era and likely preyed on other extinct animals like the giant, herbivorous Diprotodon. The last marsupial lions went extinct tens of thousands of years ago, probably due at least in part to climate changes. However, the arrival of early humans in Australia may also have played a role in their disappearance, as well as that of most of the continent’s other large meagauna around the same time.

For thousands of years after the vanishing of Thylacoleo, Australia’s largest mammalian predators were the Tasmanian devil and Tasmanian tiger–also called the Tasmanian wolf or thylacine. These two species gradually disappeared from the mainland, probably driven to extinction by competition with wild dogs, or dingoes, which were introduced by humans. However, both predators continued to survive and thrive on Tasmania, an island where there were no dingoes, until the arrival of European settlers. Convinced that thylacines and devils posed a threat to their livestock, settlers set out on a mass extermination campaign that is believed to have killed off the last thylacine by the end of the 1930s. Periodic, unverified reports of thylacine sightings lend hope that the species might still exist somewhere in the Tasmanian forest–but unless those rumors are proven true, the Tasmanian devil is now Australia’s largest native mammalian predator.

Like almost all of Australia’s native mammals, Tasmanian devils are marsupials, meaning the mothers carry their still-helpless babies in a pouch for an extended time period. A young Tasmanian devil is at its most vulnerable immediately after birth, and in fact most never make it past this stage. When they emerge from the mother’s birth canal they are about the size of a grain of rice–and while up to 50 may be born in a brood, each mother Tasmanian devil has only four milk-producing mammary glands. Whichever four babies manage to attach themselves first to a nipple are the only ones to survive and grow.

Young Tasmanian devils remain in their mother’s pouch for about four months, reaching full maturity only after two years. Those who make it this far may achieve a lifespan of up to six or possibly as long as eight years. Adult devils are primarily scavengers, feasting on the carcasses of wallabies, wombats, and other native marsupials as well as dead livestock like sheep and cows. They sometimes also hunt live food, including not only small mammals but birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. However, they do not pose a significant threat to domestic animals as was once widely believed. In fact, Tasmanian devils are beneficial to farmers and ranchers because they help control rodent populations.

Much of the Tasmanian devil’s fierce reputation stems from their behavior when they converge together on a large animal carcass to feed. Devils who meet in this context engage in a complex set of social behaviors that include growling, shrieking, and even sneezing at one another. However, although it may sound as if they are locked in life-and-death combat, they are in fact establishing dominance hierarchies in a way designed to minimize the need for actual violence. Similarly, their wide mouths complete with powerful jaws and sharp teeth may look imposing–but these features are primarily adaptations not for fighting, but for crushing bone and shearing through the flesh of carcasses. Like most animals, Tasmanian devils would prefer to avoid violence if they can and are aggressive only if they feel threatened.

Because of an undeserved reputation as sheep hunters, Tasmanian devils were nearly driven to extinction along with the thylacine by the early 1900s. However, in 1941 they were protected by law, allowing populations to slowly begin to recover. Then, in the 1990s a new disaster struck: a contagious cancer called Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) began devastating wild populations, reducing some by 80%. DFTD is both painful and usually deadly; faces of the infected animals break out in large tumorous growths, and they usually die within six months to a year. Today, only about 15,000 Tasmanian devils survive in the wild and the species is classified as endangered. However, there is reason to be hopeful about their ability to recover.

Soon after DFTD began spreading through wild devil populations, scientists and conservation groups established captive breeding programs that raise disease-free devils. These captive populations are like an “insurance” policy for the species’ survival, and could repopulate their natural habitat if wild devils are wiped out. In some parts of Tasmania, captive-bred devils are already being released to supplement and add genetic diversity to declining wild populations. Yet, it may be that devils’ best weapon against DFTD is the natural ability of wild animals to adapt.

A recent genetic study of Tasmanian devils conducted by researchers at Idaho University has revealed how the species is evolving to fight back against DFTD, developing immunity and possibly also changing behavior to avoid transmitting the contagious cancer. This is good news for the devils, but it also complicates efforts to help them by releasing captive-bred animals.There is a danger that devils raised in a disease-free environment would lack the immunity being evolved in the wild, and that their release could actually make a population more vulnerable to infection. Saving devils from DFTD will require communication and careful coordination between conservation groups raising them in captivity, and researchers studying how wild devils are adapting. Meanwhile, it is important to minimize other threats to devil survival that could compound the threat from disease.

In the long term, maintaining healthy Tasmanian devil populations means preserving large tracts of habitat and protecting Tasmania’s forests from logging. People all over the world can help by supporting corporate and government policies to encourage use of sustainable timber and paper products. Collisions with vehicles are also a major cause of devil mortality, so if you are lucky enough to visit Tasmania be sure to avoid speeding and watch out for devils and other wildlife on the road. Supporting the zoos and other organizations engaged in captive devil breeding programs with your patronage is another way to help.

Far from the ferocious creature of popular imagination, Tasmanian devils are shy and beneficial animals who need our help to survive. Learning more about the real habits and importance of this remarkable species can be a first step toward becoming part of the solution. From introduced dingoes, to hunting, to facial tumor disease, Tasmanian devils have had to contend with many threats to their survival–but with our assistance, they can once again have a bright future on the island of Tasmania.

Photo credit: JJ Harrison

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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