About the Tasmanian Devil
Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
The Tasmanian devil is the world’s largest surviving marsupial carnivore and was once found on the mainland of Australia, but now only found in Tasmania. The name Sarcophilus harrisii means “Flesh-lover”, as their diet consists of meat. Devils are opportunistic predators and foragers, not hunters, and will eat anything of animal origin, including insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Their sense of smell makes them highly skilled at finding carrion and decaying meat. Their powerful jaws and tooth structure allows them to consume bones, fur and exo-skeleton.
The Tasmanian devil was once widespread over the whole of Australia, but it is believed that populations on the mainland were decimated due to the Dingo, around 3,500 years ago, quickly resulting in its extinction through competition. It is now only found in Tasmania. With no dingoes found in Tasmania, the Tasmanian devil is now the island state’s top predator, but its wild populations are threatened with extinction due to the rapid transmission of the fatal Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), with only an estimated 10% of the population left in the wild.
They were one of the first mammals observed by the earliest settlers on Van Diemen’s Land, the initial name given to Tasmania by European explorers. Its name is a misnomer as the Tasmanian devil is a rather shy creature, more skilled at finding animal carcasses than killing itself.
The Tasmanian devil is a unique animal, distinguished between individuals through its distinct white markings on its body. It is about as large as a medium-sized built dog. They are black all over with white marks usually on the chest, and sometimes on the rump as well.
The Tasmanian devil typically weighs between 8 – 14 kg (males) or 5 – 9 kg (females) and their body length varies from 57 cm in females to around 65 cm for males. Tasmanian Devils are scavengers rather than hunters and prefer carrion as a result of roadkill or predated by other species. Their food preferences are kangaroos, wallabies, possums and wombats.
The Tasmanian devil has a very short lifespan. In the wild, a healthy, disease-free devil can live up to 5-6 years old, in captivity they may live up to 8 years. With such a short generation time and complex reproductive cycle, it makes it even more crucial to ensure we create an insurance population quickly to avoid the possibility of extinction in the wild. As devils age, they lose hair down the back of the body and along the tail. Hair loss is a natural ageing process, as it is in a lot of mammal species. Extensive scarring to the face can also estimate the age of male devils, as the older males tend to get into confrontation with each other, either around feeding time at a carcass, or around breeding time, when there is much fighting for the right to mate with a female.
Tasmanian Devils are scavengers rather than hunters and prefer carrion as a result of roadkill or predated by other species. Their food preferences are kangaroos, wallabies, possums and wombats. When feeding on carrion, they are voracious eaters, consuming everything including hair, organs and bones.
The Tasmanian devil is nocturnal which means they are active when it gets dark. During the day they usually hide in a den or dense bush. They love roaming considerable distances, up to 16 km in search of food. Young Tasmanian devils are more agile and can climb trees. Although not territorial, Tasmanian devils have a home range of up to 20 km2 that may overlap within a range of other devils.
When Tasmanian devils yawn or gape often misconstrued as being threatening, it is actually a display of their fear and uncertainty rather than a form of aggression.
Tasmanian devils produce a strong odour when under stress, but when calm and relaxed they are not smelly. The Tasmanian devil makes a variety of fierce noises, from harsh coughs and snarls to high-pitched screeches. A sharp sneeze is used as a challenge to other devils, and frequently comes before a fight. Many of these spectacular behaviours are bluff and part of a ritual to minimise harmful fighting when feeding communally at a large carcass.
Young joeys grow very quickly, leaving their mother at around 10 months of age. When born, the foetuses are the size of a grain of rice, around 1cm, furless and completely pink. The mother can produce around as many as 50 foetuses but only the first four who are able to latch onto the mother’s teat will survive.
The Tasmanian devil is endemic to Tasmania and is found throughout the island. Tasmanian Devils are found in a wide range of habitats but prefer open forests and woodlands. They live in coastal heath, open dry sclerophyll forest, and mixed sclerophyll rainforest – in fact, almost anywhere they can hide and find shelter by day, and find food at night.
Some Tasmanian devil facts