Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Length: 23 to 26 inches (57 to 65 centimeters); tail about 10 inches (26 centimeters)
Weight: 13 to18 pounds (6 to 8 kilograms)
Life span: about 7 to 8 years
Gestation: 31 days; young then remain in the mother’s pouch for about 4 months
Number of young at birth: up to 50, but only a maximum of four will survive in the pouch
Size at birth: about the size of a grain of rice
Age at maturity: 2 years
Conservation status: although now abundant in parts of Tasmania, devils are protected by the Australian government.
Tasmanian devils have been described as the “vacuum
cleaners” of the forest, because they mainly eat animals that
have already died.
Would you recognize a quoll, numbat, little red antechinus, fat-tailed dunnart, mulgara, dibbler, kowari, or a wambenger if you saw one? Probably not, but these are all animals that are related to the Tasmanian devil.
Have you ever heard of the Tasmanian wolf, or tiger, also called a thylacine Thylacinus cynocephalus? This was the largest recent marsupial carnivore but, sadly, it was hunted to extinction in Tasmania by the 1930s (the last known animal died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936).
The San Diego Zoo does not have Tasmanian devils at this time.
Mammals: Tasmanian Devil
Range: only found on the island state of Tasmania, which is part of
The Tasmanian devil doesn’t only exist in cartoons! They are a most unusual mammal, found only on the island state of Tasmania, a part of Australia. Why the “fiery” name and reputation? Early European settlers heard the eerie growl a devil makes as it searches for food. And when a group of devils feeds together at a carcass, harsh screeching and spine-chilling screams can be heard. Devils are also black in color and are said to have fierce tempers!
On the move for food
Curious and energetic, Tasmanian devils travel long distances each night in their pursuit of food, sometimes covering as much as 10 miles (16 kilometers). As carnivorous marsupials, Tasmanian devils are basically carrion eaters, scavenging anything that comes their way. But they also hunt live prey such as small mammals and birds. Because of their powerful teeth and jaws, devils can eat most of a carcass, including the bones. They are nocturnal hunters, and use their keen senses of smell and hearing to find prey or carrion. By day, they find shelter in caves, bushes, old wombat burrows, or hollow logs. As they amble along with their stocky bodies and large heads, Tasmanian devils look slow and awkward in their movements, but they are the top carnivore in Tasmania.
Tasmanian devils maintain home ranges in the wild, which vary with the availability of food. And while they are solitary by nature, they often come together to feed on carcasses—which is where most of the growling and screeching takes place! As gorge feeders, they consume large amounts of food at a time. As scavengers, devils also help their habitat by eating carcasses. They will eat anything lying around, no matter how old or rotten.
About a month after the breeding season in March, the mother gives birth to her tiny babies, called joeys, which will remain in her pouch for close to four months. Amazingly enough, about 50 are born at a time! They must race a distance of about 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) from the birth canal to the mother’s rear-facing pouch, where they compete to attach themselves to one of only four available teats. Only those four will then have a chance to grow and survive.
When they emerge from the pouch, the young often ride on their mother’s back, like young koalas, or are dragged along underneath her, still attached to her nipples. After about six months, the young are weaned, leaving the mother to live alone in the bush by late December (this is summer in Tasmania). Young devils are more agile than adults and will climb trees. If they can survive their first year, a devil’s life span in the wild is about seven to eight years. Other threats come from domestic dogs, attack by adult devils, being hit by cars, loss of habitat, and disease.
A misunderstood marsupial
Tasmanian devils have behaviors that may seem odd or scary to us, but have a different meaning in devil society.
A mouth that opens quite wide— While the famous gape, or yawn, of the Tasmanian devil looks threatening, it is more likely to express fear and uncertainty than aggression.
A foul odor— There is the foul odor that devils release, but this is produced under stress, not when the devils are calm and relaxed.
Fierce snarls and high-pitched screams— These are used to establish dominance at feeding time around a carcass.
A strong sneeze— No, they aren’t catching a cold! Instead, the sneeze may come before a fight between devils, but these are mostly spectacular bluff behaviors, all part of a ritual to lessen any fighting that may lead to serious injuries. After a nose-to-nose confrontation—during which their ears flush red!—one or both animals will usually back down.
The pride of Tasmania
Once European settlers came to Tasmania in the late eighteenth century, they considered Tasmanian devils and Tasmanian tigers to be nuisances and pests because they hunted sheep and ate animals snared in traps. By the 1830s, bounties were placed on the animals until they neared extinction by the turn of the century. In fact, the Tasmanian tiger became extinct by 1936. Devils were protected by law in 1941, giving the population a chance to gradually increase.
Sometimes residents of Tasmania still think of devils and their cousins the quolls (pictured at right) as pests, but this is because their numbers increase each summer when the young leave their mothers to live on their own. However, only about 40 percent will survive the first few months because of competition for food, so the dramatic increase in numbers happens only once a year. Most farmers now appreciate devils for their ability to keep down the mice population, which eats crops. However, devils face a new challenge: disease. An illness called Devil Facial Tumor Disease has been killing adult devils in recent years. The Tasmanian government has provided funding to help scientists study and treat the disease.
So in spite of its early bad reputation, it’s clear that the Tasmanian devil has made its mark on the island. It was even chosen as the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service.