7.3c – The Tasmanian Devil

The devil is in the details. (Photo by Noodlesnacks)

If you are like me and grew up with Looney Tunes cartoons, the name Tasmanian Devil brings to mind a whirling, angry, garble-talking beast. This depiction is not quite accurate, but the actual animal, an endangered carnivorous marsupial found on the island of Tasmania, is still every bit as remarkable. Yet sadly, this unique creature is now dying out because of a terrible disease.

The Tasmanian devil is the size of a small dog, but it is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial now that the thylacine is (probably) extinct. It is fast and strong, it can climb trees and swim rivers, it both hunts and scavenges, it has a tremendously powerful bite, it has a sense of smell like nobody’s business, it in turn smells awful, and it is a loud, angry-sounding creature. So a bit like a deranged, drunk hobo with a knife.

They once lived throughout Australia, but were all killed on the mainland sometime in the past 3000 years, possibly by dingoes, which are feral dogs first brought to Australia by humans.

The childhood of a Tasmanian devil is not an easy one. A female gives birth to a remarkable 20 to 30 young at a time, but she has only four nipples in her pouch, meaning that most of the young will soon die and only the strongest or fastest will live. This is an evolutionary failsafe of sorts, ensuring that the devils stay strong and fast as a species, which they need to compete for food and stay alive.

Once it grows up, however, a Tasmanian devil is a tiny force to be reckoned with. It has a scent gland much like a skunk, which it uses to mark the ground with a powerful, awful odor. Its jaws are so strong that they can crush bones and bite through metal wire. In fact, so much of the animal’s strength is concentrated in its jaws that it has a disproportionately large head, which gives the animal a strange, shambling sort of movement when walking.

Most devils hunt during the night, using their black fur, their sensitive whiskers, their great eyesight, and their ability to smell prey more than half a mile away to their advantage. Some however can hunt during the day, and the Tasmanian devil is one of the few marsupials capable of being active in the Australian midday heat.

Like the quolls, Tasmanian devils are solitary creatures but sometimes feed together and often have communal pooping spots. Unlike many solitary animals, they are not territorial. There can be a large concentration of devils in a small area without any problem; they simply won’t interact any more than they have to, though males will fight during mating season.

When hunting they can be fearsome, taking down small kangaroos or sheep, sometimes fish or fruit or frogs or insects, but most often wombats, and even more often it will simply find some carrion to scavenge and not waste time on hunting. No fool, the Tasmanian devil. When they live near humans, they like to steal shoes and chew on them, and have also been found to eat pencils, plastic, and denim jeans. All right, maybe a little foolish.

"Be honest. Do these pants I ate make my butt look fat?" (Photo by Mike Lehmann)

When a devil finds a meal, it wastes neither time nor opportunity. It will dig in with fervor and gusto, and can eat up to 40 percent of its body weight in one sitting, becoming so fat and bloated that it can only waddle away and find somewhere to lie down. When there are several devils in an area, they can pick a carcass clean before it rots.

In fact, devils seem to like to eat together, even though they normally ignore each other and never so much as wave hello when they pass on the street. But when a devil makes a kill or finds a good meal, it doesn’t mind at all if other devils come and join it. It is perhaps the only carnivore that lives alone but eats in groups. Up to 12 animals will eat at the same kill, and they make loud growling and ripping and eating sounds together, which is what inspired the sounds made by the cartoon character. It is believed that the loud eating noises are a way to advertise to other devils in the area that there is good eating to be had. Tasmanian devils are not greedy.

They are, however, sort of mean. Even though the devils advertise their food, they will squabble with each other when it comes to eating. Older devils will chase younger ones away, and the animals that never talk to each other elsewise are shown to have developed at least 20 different communication postures used while feeding together. They sometimes sumo-wrestle by pushing each other with their paws, and they will bite one another seemingly at random while eating, which is why many devils have scars around their face or rump. They don’t seem to mind. It’s all part of the Tasmanian devil lifestyle.

The devils are endangered for a number of reasons. They were once widely hunted, trapped, and poisoned by farmers, but the population became protected after the extinction of the thylacine, and slowly recovered. Surviving the wrath of humanity, they now sadly suffer from devil facial tumour disease, which is a terrifying affliction.

First appearing in 1996, it is essentially a contagious cancer that has spread across most of Tasmania and only affects Tasmanian devils. Though the original source of the cancer is unknown, it may have started due to human chemicals in the environment that concentrated in the devils, at the top of the food chain. How does it spread? Unfortunately, it mostly spreads when the devils randomly bite each other during feeding, and it is thought that as many as 80 percent of wild devils are currently infected. Sick devils are removed from the population to prevent further spread of the cancer, but there is no known cure. It is killing the devils faster than they are able to reproduce.

It is one of only three known contagious cancers in the world. This extremely rare form of cancer is possible because the cancer cells themselves are transmitted to new hosts, like a virus, and then clone themselves within the new body even though that body’s own cells are healthy. If that sounds terrifying, well, that’s because it is. The other two contagious cancers are the canine transmissible venereal tumour (passed between dogs through sex) and a reticulum cell sarcoma found in the Syrian hamster.

Scientists have gathered healthy devils to keep in captivity as a means of preserving the species in case the wild devils all die from the disease, which unfortunately is likely to be the case if new treatments aren’t found. Scientists are continuing to search for ways to stop the disease. It is estimated that at the current rate, Tasmanian devils would become extinct by 2035, but breeding healthy devils in captivity and quarantine may help the species live on. There are somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 Tasmanian devils left in the wild.

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