The Plight of the Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian devil

Tasmanian devils are currently threatened by a cancerous facial disease. (Photo credit: ©FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock)

Tasmania, an island located off the southeastern coast of Australia, is home to the Tasmanian devil. Unlike the human adult sized cartoon version, the real Tasmanian devil is only 20-31 inches (51-79 cm) tall and weighs between 9 and 26 pounds (4-12 kg).

While fossil evidence indicates that Tasmanian devils were once found on the Australian mainland, research indicates that the animals went extinct there 400 years ago due to increasingly arid conditions and the spread of the dingo, a type of wild dog. Tasmanian devils were nearly hunted to extinction on Tasmania during the late 1800s and early 1900s as they were considered to be pests by early settlers. The animals were placed under formal legislative protection in June 1941.

Though the Tasmanian devil bears no resemblance to its cartoon counterpart, it does share its terrible disposition. When the animal feels threatened, its puts on an aggressive display of growling, lunging, and baring its teeth. It earned its “devil” name from early settlers after hearing its “otherworldly” scream. However, while it may be aggressive to potential predators, Tasmanian devils tend to be fairly timid and are typically not a threat to people.

Tasmanian devils are nocturnal animals, which means they are active at night. They are carnivorous and generally feed on birds, snakes, fish, insects, and the remains of dead animals. They do not let any food go to waste – they eat the bones, tissue, muscles, and organs of their prey.

Like kangaroos and wombats, Tasmanian devils are marsupials. The animals breed once a year in March. After a three-week gestation period, between 20 and 30 rice-sized young are born. The young, called imps, must race to their mother’s pouch to claim one of her four teats; the majority are too slow and do not survive. The young devils stay in their mother’s pouch for four months, after which they are carried on their mother’s back. The young are fully grown after about nine months.

While in the mid 1990s, there was a surge in the Tasmanian devil population, that time period also coincided with the appearance of a disease called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). This cancerous disease causes tumors to form on the animal’s face, which makes it difficult for it to eat, leading to starvation. Since 2001, the Tasmanian devil population has declined 60 percent.

Scientists are working to save the species from extinction. To do so, they are sequestering healthy populations to prevent the spread of disease. They are also focusing on captive-breeding programs. Currently, over 20 Australian organizations are involved in captive-breeding efforts and more than 600 Tasmanian devils have been bred in captivity.

More to Explore
Tasmanian Devil Natural History
Tasmanian Devil FAQs
Save the Tasmanian Devil
National Geographic: Tasmanian Devil

Country: Australia
Location: Australia is located on the Oceania continent, which is found between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean.
Area: 7,741,220 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than the 48 contiguous United States)
Climate: Arid to semi-arid; temperate in the southern and eastern portions of the country and tropical in the northern portions of the country
Terrain: Mainly low desert plateaus; fertile plains in the southeast
Natural Resources: bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, natural gas, nickel, silver, tungsten, uranium, petroleum
Economics: $998.3 billion (est. 2013)
Environmental Issues: Soil erosion, urbanization, desertification, habitat destruction (land and marine)
Source:
CIA – The World Factbook