The Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian Devil, or devil, for short, is the largest living carnivorous marsupial on the planet. It has held this title for about eighty years, since the extinction of the Thylacine or Tasmanian wolf/tiger.

Devils are predominantly found in Tasmania, an island south of the Australian mainland. They once roamed the mainland but disappeared at some point due to competition/predation by dingoes (wild dogs introduced to Australia about 3000 years ago) and climate change, for the most part. Not many animals have been poorly understood over the years and have a substantial portion of their nature shrouded in mystery like the Tasmanian devil — at least until recently. Ironically, they seem to enjoy a lot of recognition in Tasmania and beyond. (For the record, these guys even have a cartoon rep — Looney Toons). In Tasmania, they are used as symbols of many organizations.

You are probably wondering why the unorthodox appellation? Well… Contrary to what the name may suggest, these guys are no more sinister than the average carnivore, at least for the most part. They’re seldom ferocious unless they feel threatened or when they are feeding. In fact, they are quite shy. Early settlers named them so because of the blood-curdling “demonic” screams they made during the dark hours of night. Their high-pitched scream is just one of the many unusual sounds in their broad spectrum of vocalizations — coughs, sneezes, snorts and so on, each sound serving its own purpose. There is a lot to talk about these guys. However, I will be restricting this piece to a few focal points — their eating habits and their infamous bite power, reproductive behaviour and relationship with humans, among others.

A Tasmanian Devil has a stocky build, is about the size of a small dog, and is covered in black fur. A little above 80% of them have characteristic white markings on their chest region and rump. They have a slightly oversized head that houses powerful jaws and a tail that is about half their body length. They store fat in their tails. Hence, a thick tail is a sign of a healthy devil. Their forelimbs are slightly longer than their hindlimbs, a feature uncommon in the marsupial world. They also give off a pungent smell, thanks to scent glands located at the base of their tail. Despite their somewhat round appearance, they are capable of reaching impressive running speeds — at least for their size — about 24km/h. Younger devils are adept climbers. This ability is believed to protect them from older devils, who may prey on them when there are no other options. They are closely related to quolls, both belonging to the family Dasyuridae. The latter is the largest carnivorous marsupial of the Australian mainland.

Carrion makes up a large part of a devil’s diet. Although they are crepuscular/nocturnal hunters capable of hunting small-sized mammals, birds and reptiles, they often prefer to scavenge rather than hunt. They are carrion specialists, often found loitering around roads where roadkills happen often. They are largely solitary animals, but have often been recorded eating in groups, which is quite unique in the carnivore world — not many solitary carnivores can bear to share their food with other guys. (Also, they practice communal defecation, meaning unrelated devils in a particular location often defecate at a common site) Nevertheless, these “feasts” are not as peaceful as folks may think, as fights often break out among these guys in a bid to establish dominance. The characteristic “yawn” posture is often used by a devil to scare off intruders/challengers — fellow devils and non-devils alike, not just in “feasts” like this, but during breeding seasons to scare off competitors and as a self-defence mechanism.

Devils eat about 15% of their body weight on average daily. They can, however, be greedy eaters if the opportunity arises, consuming as much as 40% of their body weight in as little as half an hour. That’s equivalent to an adult man consuming about 30kg of fùfú in thirty minutes, Yeah! Before you bash these devils though, you should know that there are animals that are way greedier.

They are also fond of residing in the cavity of the carrion while eating, sleeping off when they’re exhausted and then waking up later to continue eating. Their carrion-clearing ability has proven beneficial to the ecosystem — the rapid turnover of carcasses helps to prevent the spread of insects that may harm animals around, especially livestock.

Now, to the infamous bite power. They have the highest bite force compared to body size of any living mammalian carnivore. They are capable of widening their jaws to about 80°, and the sheer force of their bite is capable of breaking bones and even cutting through metal. You DO NOT want to get bitten by one of these guys. Luckily, you probably never will. They’re too small to see humans as prey, so humans will most likely not be a victim of their terrible jaws. Well, unless you go looking for trouble. Their jaws come in handy when they feed. They do not leave remnants. They eat everything — bones, meat, fur. Everything! Their jaw anatomy has been likened to that of hyenas, a form of convergent evolution. The latter’s jaws are also capable of spectacular feats.
Devils are not monogamous animals. Males fight one another for females and guard their partners against messing around with other males.

Females average four breeding seasons in their life and give birth to more than 20 young after three weeks’ gestation. The newborn is pink, lacks fur, and is poorly developed, weighing around 0.20g at birth. As there are only four nipples in the pouch, competition is FIERCE, and few newborns survive. The young grow rapidly and are ejected from the pouch after around three months. The young become independent after around nine months.

Some have considered the idea of keeping devils as pets — not a great idea. These guys may look cute and rotund and all (at least when they are not baring their teeth), but they are not “people” animals, and most likely will not respond to whatever gesture of affection you show them. Besides, you risk putting yourself in danger if they feel threatened at any point in time.

Devils have been victims of poor orientation and superstitious beliefs over the years, the most notable being the period when they were heavily hunted down because they were erroneously perceived to be killing livestock. Had it not been for a reorientation — the realization that they were, in fact, not responsible, they would have probably been wiped out by now. But now, they are threatened by something more dangerous — a facial tumour disease that affects about 80% of the devil population. These tumours, when located around the snout region, impairs the devil’s ability to open its mouth to feed. Consequently, it dies of starvation. All these factors have put them on the “Endangered” list. Fortunately, many people and organizations are now advocating for these endangered animals, helping them in their battle for survival. Devils are now bred in captivity, and some are being exported abroad to foreign zoos as part of awareness programs. These efforts are a great development, and we can only hope that things get better from here on. The last thing the world (and especially Australia) needs right now is a repeat of the thylacine situation. That’d be a HUGE blow to the animal world.

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