The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), also referred to simply as ‘the devil’, is a carnivorous marsupial now found only in the Australian island state of Tasmania. The Tasmanian Devil is the only remaining member of the genus Sarcophilus. It is the size of a small dog, but stocky and muscular. The Tasmanian Devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world. It is distinct with its black fur coat. It has an offensive odor when stressed, and has an extremely loud and disturbing screech. The Tasmanian Devil is viciousness when feeding. It is known to both hunt prey and scavenge dead animals. Although, it is usually solitary it sometimes eats with other devils.
The Tasmanian Devil became extirpated on the Australian mainland about 400 years before European settlement in 1788. Because they were seen as a threat to livestock in Tasmania, devils were hunted until 1941. Then they became officially protected. Since the late 1990s devil facial tumor disease has reduced the devil population significantly and now threatens the survival of the species. They may soon be listed as endangered. Programs are currently being undertaken by the Tasmanian government to reduce the impact of the disease.
The Tasmanian Devil is the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial in Australia. It has a thick build, with a large head and a short, stubby tail. The devil stores body fat in its tail. An unhealthy devil often has a thin tail. Unusually for a marsupial, its forelegs are slightly longer than its hind legs. Devils can run in bursts at the impressive speed of 8.1 miles per hour (13 kilometers per hour). The fur is usually black. Irregular white patches on the chest and rear are common. Males are usually larger than females, having an average head and body length of 26 in (652 mm), with a 10 in (258 mm) tail, and an average weight of 18 lb (8 kg). Females have an average head and body length of 22 in (570 mm), with a 10 in (244 mm) tail, and an average weight of 13 lb (6 kg). The average life expectancy of a Tasmanian Devil in the wild is estimated at six years, although it may live longer in captivity.
The devil has long whiskers on its face and in clumps on the top of the head. These help the devil locate prey when foraging in the dark, and aid in detecting the closeness of other devils during feeding. When agitated, the devil can produce a strong odor. Its pungency is as bad as a skunk. Hearing is its dominant sense, and it also has an excellent sense of smell. Since devils hunt at night, their vision seems to be strongest in black and white. In these conditions they can detect moving objects readily, but have difficulty seeing stationary objects. The devil has the strongest bite of any living mammal. The power of the jaw is in part due to its comparatively large head. A Tasmanian Devil also has one set of teeth that grows slowly throughout its life.
Females start to breed when they reach sexual maturity, typically in their second year. At this point, they become fertile once a year, producing multiple ova while in heat. Mating occurs in March, in sheltered locations during both day and night. Males fight over females in the breeding season, and female devils will mate with the dominant male. Females will mate with several males if not guarded after mating. Devils give birth to 20″“30 young. When the young are born, they move from the vagina to the pouch. Once inside the pouch, they each remain attached to a nipple for the next 100 days. The female Tasmanian Devil’s pouch opens to the rear. It is physically difficult for the female to interact with young inside the pouch. Despite the large litter at birth, the female has only four nipples. Therefore, no more than four young can survive birth. On average, more females survive than males. Their mother eats the remaining young.
Inside the pouch, the nourished young develop quickly. At 15 days the external parts of the ear are visible. Eyelids are apparent at 16 days, whiskers at 17 days, and the lips at 20 days. The young start to grow fur at 49 days and have a full coat by 90 days. Their eyes open shortly after their fur coat develops, between 87 and 93 days. Their mouths can relax their hold of the nipple at 100 days. They leave the pouch 105 days after birth. Unlike kangaroo joeys, young devils do not return to the pouch. They remain in the den for another three months. First, venturing outside the den between October and December before becoming independent in January. Female devils are occupied with raising their young for all but approximately six weeks of the year.
Ecology and behavior
Tasmanian Devils are widespread and fairly common throughout Tasmania. They are found in all habitats on the island, including the outskirts of urban areas. They particularly like dry forests and coastal woodlands. The Tasmanian Devil is a nocturnal and crepuscular hunter, spending the days in dense bush or in a hole. Young devils can climb trees, but this becomes more difficult as they grow larger. Devils can also swim. They are predominantly solitary animals and do not form packs. They occupy territories of 4.9 to 12.4 square miles (8 to 20 kmÂ²), which can overlap considerably among different animals.
Tasmanian Devils can take prey up to the size of a small wallaby. They are opportunistic and eat carrion more often than they hunt live prey. Although the devil favors wombats, it will eat all small native mammals, domestic mammals (including sheep), birds, fish, insects, frogs and reptiles. Their diet is largely varied and depends on the food available. On average, they eat about 15% of their body weight each day. They can eat up to 40% of their body weight in 30 minutes if the opportunity arises. Tasmanian Devils eliminate all traces of a carcass, devouring the bones and fur in addition to the meat and internal organs. The devil has earned the gratitude of Tasmanian farmers, as the speed at which they clean a carcass helps prevent the spread of insects that might otherwise harm livestock.
Eating is a social event for the Tasmanian Devil, and much of the noise attributed to the animal is a result of loud communal eating. Up to 12 individuals can gather, which can often be heard several miles away. They use 11 different vocal sounds to communicate as they feed. They usually establish dominance by sound and physical posturing, although fighting does occur. Adult males are the most aggressive, and scarring is common from fighting over food and mates.
For some time, Tasmania was the last refuge of large marsupial carnivores. All of the larger carnivorous marsupials became extinct in mainland Australia, shortly after humans arrived. Only the smallest and most adaptable survived. Their extinction is attributed to predation by dingoes and hunting by indigenous Australians.
The first Tasmanian settlers ate Tasmanian Devil, which they described as tasting like veal. As it was believed devils would hunt and kill livestock, a bounty scheme to remove the devil from rural properties was introduced as early as 1830. Over the next 100 years, trapping and poisoning brought them to the brink of extinction. Law protected the Tasmanian Devil in 1941, and the population slowly recovered.
The Tasmanian Devil’s current population is thought to be in the range of 100,000 to 150,000. Tasmania and Australia prohibit the export of Tasmanian Devils.