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Devils of Tasmania
Devils Are Endangered
Just about everyone has heard about the Tasmanian Devil, one of Australia's most well known animals. What may not be generally known is that the devil is now an endangered species, due to a contagious cancer which is becoming widespread. This disease is known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease. (Note: I am Australian, and Tumour is our correct spelling.)
Many zoos are keeping disease free animals, so that wild stocks can be replaced when a cure is found.
Update: Have just heard that an improved vaccination is being trialled, and some captive bred and vaccinated devils will soon be released into the wild. The disease is still spreading around the state of Tasmania, and devils are endangered. Hopefully this vaccine will work, as we don't want to lose these fascinating animals.
Most images and videos in this article are my own. All rights reserved.
Tasmanian Devilish Facts
The Latin name for the Tasmanian Devil is Sarcophilus harrisii. Devils are marsupials, and are also carnivores. They are usually nocturnal.
Marsupial means that the young of a species are born undeveloped, and must spend months in a pouch while developing further. Being a carnivore, devils eat only meat, usually birds, fish, snakes, and even insects. They will also eat carrion, such as roadkill.
Tasmanian devils grow to about 75 cm (31 inches) long, and can weigh up to 12 kilograms (25 lbs). This can vary, depending on the amount of food available. The devil has a disproportionately large head, and it's strong jaws and sharp teeth can give a very powerful bite.
Devils were named because of the sounds they made when feeding or fighting over food. The early settlers in Tasmania thought they sounded like devils! These little animals have very bad tempers, and will often fight over roadkill, squabbling for the best bits.
You can find out more about the sound the devil makes at this Tasmanian Parks web site.
About Devil Facial Tumour Disease
DFTD is spread when Tasmanian Devils bite each other, during fights, or when mating. They are quite a ferocious animal, so bites happen frequently.
This disease usually shows on the face or neck, where open wounds or swellings develop. The tumours grow, and can spread throughout the body.
DFTD generally affects adults, as they are the ones mating and fighting. Because it is often found around the mouth, the animals are unable to eat. Without nourishment, they become weaker, and are usually dead within four to six months. It must be agonisingly painful for the poor animals.
The Tasmanian Devil population has declined by at least 75% since 1990, and was originally found only in the North-East of the state. It has not affected all areas, strangely, as in some places, the Devils are not infected.
Scientists are working on a cure for DFTD, but this will take time, if it is even possible. The disease was unknown prior to the 1990s.
Zoos in Australia, and even overseas, are keeping groups of healthy animals to ensure the survival of this iconic Tasmanian species. Unfortunately, Gunns Plains Zoo, where some of the images on this lens were taken, is not included in the breeding program, as it's a private zoo, although they do have some very healthy Devils there, as you can see from my images.
Devils at the Zoo
More Devilish Facts
Tasmanian Devils became extinct on mainland Australia approximately 400 years ago. Fossils have been found in many places.
When Europeans first arrived in Tasmania, devils were treated as a pest, because they frequently raided farms and chicken yards. A bounty was placed on their heads, along with Tasmanian tigers (now extinct) and they became quite rare for a while. In 1941, they became protected by law, and numbers have increased, until today, when they are threatened by DFTD.
Approximately 15% of devils have no white markings on their chests, and appear completely black.
Devil Facial Tumour Disease Poll
Have you heard about Devil Facial Tumour Disease?
Tasmanian Devils generally mate in early Autumn, March, and babies are born 21 days later. Only four young can fit in the pouch, on four available teats,, and the babies must make their own way there. If more than four young are born, the others will not survive. Usually only two or three young make it to adulthood.
After about sixteen weeks in the pouch, they young are sometimes left in a den, such as a hollow tree. They are weaned between five and six months. Usually, devil young are living on their own by December or January. A healthy devil can live for up to seven or eight years, although females may live for a shorter time.
Male devils can be extremely vicious in the mating season, and fights leave some animals with quite serious injuries. Since Devil Facial Tumour Disease began, it is often spread at this time. Males can breed with more than one female, usually at or after two years of age.
Female Tasmanian Devils can be somewhat choosy in the mate they select. They will often choose the strongest male they can find. This is discovered by mock fighting between the male and female, during which no injuries are received.
Up to twenty young may be born, but as above, only four will survive, as there are only four teats in the female's pouch. Survival of the fittest is nature's way, even though it may seem cruel.
With many zoos now breeding disease free populations of Tasmanian Devils, it seems that the survival of the species is assured.
Tasmanian Devils On Amazon
Tasmanian Devils Feeding
These three devils are demolishing the leg of a prey animal, including skin and bone. Devils eat just about everything, as bone is no problem for their powerful jaws.
The video below was taken at Gunns Plains Zoo, Tasmania, by myself. The commentary is by a keeper.
Releasing Devils Onto The Mainland
There has recently been some talk about re-introducing healthy populations to the mainland. It has been suggested to the Victorian Government that they be released into the Wilsons Promontory National Park, where they will compete with feral foxes and cats. It is hoped that a natural predator such as the devil will help re-establish the ecological balance of native animals.
"The [Tasmanian] devil is a scavenger; it may take food from feral cats or foxes at certain times of the year that may limit their reproductive success, it may compete for nesting spaces and take their young.”.............Professor Tim Flannery
Wilsons Promontory park is in Victoria, the closest state to Tasmania, the devils' home. It has conditions that would be ideal for the release of these animals. This is called re-wilding, and has been done before. i.e. The wolves of Yellowstone in the USA.
Predators are seen as necessary, and releasing devils into Victoria would be a step in preventing their extinction, which could well happen in their home state. It is a step well worth considering.