Should We Have Sympathy for the Tasmanian Devil?

The Tasmanian devil
The Tasmanian devil
Drawing of a devil and a thylacine (below)
Drawing of a devil and a thylacine (below)
Jaw of a devil
Jaw of a devil

This fearsome little beast is an endangered species

The Tasmanian devil is a little predator whose vicious nature has fascinated people since its scientific discovery about two hundred years ago. Discovered in Tasmania, an island province of Australia, the devil is one of only a few carnivorous marsupials in the world, and if it doesn’t get lots of help in the coming years, if may become extinct.

Let’s read further about this interesting creature and see what can be done to save it:

History of Tasmanian Devils

In 1807, naturalist George Harris was the first person to write a paper describing the Tasmanian devil, and eventually this new species was named Sarcophilus harrisii. Discovered in Tasmania, a large island south of Australia, where England sent many of its worst criminals in the late 1700s, the devil acquired many nicknames including Beelzebub’s pup, a reference to its far-reaching, screeching cry heard at night.

The Tasmanian devil is about the size of a small dog and has a very strong jaw containing many sharp teeth. Since the devil is a relatively small predator, it needs to display ferocity when confronted by other predators such as eagles and, during earlier times, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, declared extinct in 1936. (Interestingly, some scientists think the thylacine may still exist in some remote areas). Once the thylacine passed on, the Tasmanian devil became the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world.

Fossil evidence shows that devils once existed in Australia, though scientists don’t seem to know for certain how long ago – hundreds of years or maybe as long as 3,000 years. The primary theory for their extinction on the mainland is that wild dogs known and dingoes wiped them out. The dingoes, an invasive species, were brought to Australia thousands of years ago when the first humans arrived on the continent.

How Tasmanian Devils Live

Tasmanian devils are primarily nocturnal but at times like to bask in the sun. Devils feed primarily on meat, including carrion, but will consume just about anything - insects, fish, sheep, mice, rats, birds, frogs, tadpoles as well as vegetable matter – just about anything the critter can overcome, chew up and swallow. Regarding its eating ability, the devil’s bite is the strongest of any mammal of equivalent body mass.

In spite of their low-to-the-ground, muscular, stocky body, devils are agile and fast and can climb trees and swim across rivers. In terms of size, tenacity and scrappy disposition, devils are similar to wolverines and badgers, as they will try to fight off just about any rivals or predators. And, when devils become enraged, their ears turn red, adding to their diabolical image.

Not monogamous animals, male devils compete with other males on a regular basis, the alpha male getting the females. The species’ lifespan is from five to seven years and they live in burrows, caves, brush thickets or thick, grass tussocks.

Females have from 20 to 30 offspring during each of an average of four breeding seasons, but the female's pouch contains only four teats, so many young ones don't live very long. This high number of offspring is fortunate because most young devils die before they reach adulthood, as they suffer from predation, disease and are often hit and killed by passing cars, especially as they feed on carrion along roadways. Moreover, decades ago devils were hunted, as they were seen as threats to livestock, but then in 1941 the Australian government banned the hunting of devils.

Cancer afflicted devil
Cancer afflicted devil

The Future is uncertain for Tasmanian Devils

According to the article “Sympathy for the Devil” found in the May 2012 issue of Smithsonian magazine, hearing the nocturnal scream of the Tasmanian devil is becoming a rare occurrence. Since 1996 the population of devils has decreased by 80 per cent. A kind of cancer has been attacking them and its fatality rate is 100 per cent!

Living only on the island of Tasmania for hundreds of years has kept wild dogs from attacking devils but also lowered their genetic diversity, making them more vulnerable to disease, especially cancer. The aforementioned devil facial tumor disease is a very aggressive cancer that devils spread by biting each other. Unfortunately devils, especially males, bite each other a lot!

The disease causes massive tumors about the face, making it impossible for devils to feed, so they eventually starve to death. The use of chemotherapy has proved ineffective against the cancer, and actually removing the tumors doesn’t help either.

In order to combat this disease, areas unscathed by the disease have been fenced off and uninfected populations of devils have been established in Australia. However, since their numbers are declining precipitously, devils could go extinct with a few decades. As the Tasmanian tiger did in the early 1900s, will Tasmanian devils disappear as well? Let’s hope scientists and other dedicated people have acted in time to save them.

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Comments 17 comments

Lisa HW profile image

Lisa HW 4 years ago from Massachusetts

It isn't very original to say, but "interesting Hub". Really. I've never given much thought to the Tasmanian Devil. In fact, I don't even think I've been aware that it still actually exists. It looks like a cute little "devil" in the picture (although I'm kind of glad there aren't any hanging out in my yard with the raccoons :) ).

I respect and appreciate that your Hub calls attention to this species and its plight.

Highvoltagewriter profile image

Highvoltagewriter 4 years ago from Savannah GA.

Fascinating creatures them devils, and it break my heart if they went the way of the dodo bird!

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Lisa HW. I'm also glad devils aren't as common as raccoons, which can be lots of trouble too.

As for you, Highvoltagewriter, I doubt that devils will go extinct any time soon, but if their gene pool continues to shrink, who knows? Later!

gipsiecrone profile image

gipsiecrone 4 years ago from presently St Augustine, FL

another of our 4 legged brothers and sisters in danger.mother Gaia has to be ready to loose Her cool

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, gipsiecrone. Ma Nature has many reasons to be upset with us earthlings. Later!

Hovalis profile image

Hovalis 4 years ago from Australia

I saw a show on this the other day, and apparently the latest research they've done indicates that the facial cancer could be the result of a mutation in one devil, which has spread across the population in Tasmania. If so, it is really scary how fast it has spread. I'd hate to see them extinct in Tasmania. There are disease free colonies established in various zoos on the mainland, and there's ongoing research, but the answer to what is happening and how to cure it could be years away. I just hope they can hold out long enough. There's been too many extinctions in Australia already. :-(

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment. Hovalis. I haven't heard from you in awhile! Anyway, I think there's a good chance that devils will survive until the end of the century; after that, they may only exist in zoos and gene pools. Later!

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whowas 4 years ago

Thanks for that hub. I had been broadly aware that the tasmanian devil was under threat of extinction however, I had not known about the cancer issue. I suspect that in cases like this the only real hope would be to isolate disease-free populations in the wild as far as possible, maintain breeding stocks in zoo collections and then hope to reintroduce a monitered population into the wild once the disease had been eradicated.

I know it is never a popular idea, but if there are sufficient numbers of uninfected tasmanian devils in the wild, a cull of diseased animals might be necessary. renaming the poor beast with a more human-friendly handle might not go amiss, either. I understand that there is a plan underway to relocate a population of devils on an island.

If anyone is interested in doing something practical to help, you can find the campaign to save the tasmanian devils here:

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, whowas. If enough people are interested in saving the Tasmanian devil, it may indeed survive. As for its name, I kind of like it - but that's just me. Later!

Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 4 years ago from US

oh my goodness, yes we should have sympathy for the poor devils! no animal should die a painful cancer-induced death and be plagued by tumor-growth! how sad. great article, very informative, enjoyed the read.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Schatzie Speaks. Yes, we certainly should have sympathy for the devil and all other suffering creatures on this beleaguered planet. Later!

drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

It would be a shame, Kosmo, to lose all these fascinating little creatures. Looney Tunes, the cartoon series, had affection for them, too, as witnessed by their cartoons with the Tasmanian Devil character called Taz who was prone to sudden anger.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, drbj. Let's hope we don't lose the Tasmanian devil any time soon. At any rate, we'll always have Taz. Later!

Angela Brummer profile image

Angela Brummer 4 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

I do feel badly for them. GREAT HUB!

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Angela Brummer. I can always use another compliment. Later!

carlarmes profile image

carlarmes 4 years ago from Bournemouth, England

WOW, I never new that. Interesting information that an animal can catch cancer from another of the same species, I take it that they catch a virus first that then causes the creatures to get cancer. I know viruses can cause cancer, I hope they don't become extinct, it would be another great loss to the world.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, carfarmes. Let's all root for the survival of the Tasmanian devil. Later!

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