Famous for its spine-chilling screeches, the Tasmanian Devil is an Australian icon and is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial.
Once found across Australia, Tasmanian Devils are thought to have become extinct on the mainland before European settlement due to the introduction of dingoes.
They have a stocky body, black fur with white markings, a broad head with powerful jaws and large strong teeth. Capable of eating up to 10% of their own body weight of food a day, they will eat almost any meat they find. Despite their name and reputation, devils are shy and tend to scavenge on dead animals rather than kill their own prey.
Early Europeans trapped and killed Tasmanian Devils for over 100 years, believing that they would eat their farm animals. Devil numbers plummeted until 1941 when they became legally protected.
Devil numbers gradually increased from 1941, until the emergence of a new threat: Devil Facial Tumour Disease. This contagious cancer is spreading through devil populations in Tasmania and is threatening the species with extinction.
Tasmanian Devils were listed as Endangered in 2009, following a decline of more than 60% of the population. Devils are at risk from road kills, dogs and foxes, although the major threat to the species is an infectious cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).
DFTD was first discovered in 1996 in north-east Tasmania and has now spread across the state with 60% of the state now thought to be infected.
Devil Facial Tumour Disease is a fatal cancer which kills devils within six months of them getting the disease. The cancer causes tumours to develop around the mouth, face and neck stopping infected devils from being able to feed. Unlike most cancers, DFTD is contagious and can be spread from devil to devil. It is passed between devils through biting which occurs during mating and feeding.
Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos are working together with other Australian zoos to breed an insurance population of Tasmanian Devils to release into the wild should it become necessary.
Distribution & Habitat
Tasmanian Devils are found across mainland Tasmania in all major habitats; living almost anywhere that they can find a den during the day and food at night. They are commonly found in dry sclerophyll forest, coastal heath and agricultural areas.
Tasmanian Devils mate once a year from February to June and 21 days after mating, the female can give birth to over 20 babies (joeys) which must compete with one another to attach themselves to one of four teats in the female’s backward facing pouch. Devil joeys remain in the pouch for four months until they are fully furred and able to be left in the den while the mother forages for food.
Tasmanian Devils are sexually mature at two years and may live for 6 – 8 years.
Diet & Behaviour
Tasmanian Devils are nocturnal (active at night), sleeping in grass-lined dens in old wombat burrows, caves or rock piles.
During the night they travel up to 8km in search of food, following well-worn trails to food sources. Devils often have overlapping home ranges and will gather in groups to feed on large carcases. Group feeding sessions can become very noisy as devils scream and growl to compete for food.
Devils will scavenge on whatever carrion (dead meat) they can find, using their powerful jaws and razor sharp teeth to crush bones to eat every part of the carcass. Favourite foods include possums, wallabies and wombats and they have also eat moths, beached fish and dead cattle or sheep.
By eating dead animals Tasmanian Devils effectively keep the bushland clean, removing carcases before they rot and attract blow flies.