The Tasmanian Devil is a carnivorous marsupial now found in the wild only in the Australian island state of Tasmania. The Tasmanian devil is the only extant member of the genus Sarcophilus. The size of a small dog, but stocky and muscular, the Tasmanian devil is now the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world after the extinction of the Thylacine in 1936. They get their name from their pungent odour when stressed, their extremely loud and disturbing screech, and ferocity when feeding.
The Tasmanian devil was extirpated on the Australian mainland at least 3000 years ago, well before European settlement in 1788. Because they were seen as a threat to livestock in Tasmania, devils were hunted until 1941, when they became officially protected.
The Tasmanian devil is an iconic animal within Australia; it is the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the former Tasmanian Australian rules football team which played in the Victorian Football League was known as the Devils.
The devil was one of six native Australian animals to appear on commemorative Australian two dollar coins issued between 1989 and 1994. Tasmanian devils are popular with domestic and international tourists. Because of their unique personality the Tasmanian devil has been the subject of numerous documentaries, non-fiction children’s books and a popular Warner Bros. cartoon character.
Tasmanian devils are widespread and fairly common throughout Tasmania, but are quickly dying from a contagious facial cancer. Found in all habitats on the island, including the outskirts of urban areas, they particularly like dry sclerophyll forests and coastal woodlands. The Tasmanian devil is a nocturnal and crepuscular hunter, spending the days in dense bush or in a hole. Young devils can climb trees, but this becomes more difficult as they grow larger. Devils can also swim. They are predominantly solitary animals and do not form packs.
Because of the animated cartoon character of the same name (above) which is based on this creature, the Tasmania Devil is quite well known around the world, and children in particular make a B-line for them. This is probably why they are very popular exhibits at zoos and wildlife sanctuaries around Australia.
Currently the Tasmanian Devil is found only in Tasmania, although fossil evidence suggests that it once occupied much of the Australian mainland. It has been suggested that its absence in many previously occupied areas can be explained by competition with the introduced dingo in Australia.
Tasmanian devils are numerous throughout Tasmania except in areas where there has been extensive habitat fragmentation and deforestation. They are most numerous in coastal heath and rangeland areas where agricultural practices maintain a constant supply of carrion. They also occur in open, dry schlerophyll forest and mixed schlerophyll rainforest. Their dens typically are located in hollow logs, caves, or burrows.
Tasmanian devils are stocky with a brownish black pelage. They have a white throat patch, white spots on their sides and backside, and a pinkish snout. The head is massive with well developed jaw muscles. Molar teeth are heavy and adapted for their role in crushing bone and tearing through muscle and thick skin.
Females are slightly smaller than males. Body size varies considerably with diet, habitat, and age. Large males may reach 12 kg and 30 cm at the shoulder. Total length ranges from 525 to 800 mm and tail length from 230-300 mm. Tasmanian devils most often live to a maximum of 5 years old in the wild. Most young die immediately after dispersing out of their natal range as a result of food scarcity or competition. They may live 7 to 8 years
Tasmanian devils are nocturnal and usually solitary. Occasionally, when individuals congregate at food sources, such as carrion, they interact aggressively but they are not territorial. When fighting, Tasmanian devils vocalize with growls, screeches, and vibratos. There also seems to be a learned dominance hierarchy, at least in captive situations.
Both males and females make nests of bark, grass and leaves which they inhabit throughout the day. They may be seen sunbathing during the day in quiet areas.
Tasmanian devils have been considered livestock predators. In reality, these marsupials take most of their large prey, such as wombats, wallabies, sheep, and rabbits, in the form of carrion. Tasmanian devils are efficient scavengers, eating even bones and fur. Tasmanian devils may have depended on carrion left from Tasmanian wolf kills in historical times. Other food items, such as insects, insect larvae, snakes, and small amounts of vegetation, are taken when encountered. Tasmanian devils forage in a slow, lumbering manner, using their sense of smell to find food at night. They are famous for their rowdy communal feeding, which is accompanied by aggression and loud vocalisations.
At one time, Tasmanian devils were thought to be in danger of extinction due to persecution by settlers and destruction of forest habitat. Populations stabilized, and may have increased with the increased availability of carrion in rangelands. In recent years many populations of Tasmanian devil have been devastated by a new, usually lethal, cancer-like disease that is spreading rapidly throughout Tasmania. There is some evidence that this disease is not new, but is endemic to Tasmanian devils. Tasmanian devils are protected in Tasmania.