Common Name: The Tasmanian Devil
A.K.A.: Sarcophilus harrisii (Family Dasyuridae)
- Latin name translates to “Harris’s Meat Lover” after naturalist George Harris
- Weigh 6-13kg (13-29lbs.), around the size of a small dog
- Largest carnivorous marsupials in the world after the extinction of the thylacine in 1936
- Live up to five years in the wild; fully grown at two years of age
Found: On the Australian island-state of Tasmania
It Does What?!
Spins around in circles and chases talking rabbits, if the cartoons are to be believed. But Tasmanian devils have suffered from some bad press over the years. While they’re often portrayed as incurably vicious, dangerous creatures, this isn’t really the whole truth. Yes, they can scream like a person getting dismembered. And yes, they’re good little hunters that can take down prey larger than themselves, partly thanks to having the strongest bite per unit body mass of any living mammal. (Crunching through large bones is not a tall order for a Tasmanian devil.) But they just as often scavenge carrion killed by other causes, frequently in the form of roadkill. They don’t tend to attack humans, either (unless that human happens to be dead already). Faced with live humans, devils will usually just hold still and hope you don’t see them, sometimes trembling nervously as they do so. Doesn’t exactly strike fear into your heart, does it?
In fact, more than anything, devils deserve a bit of sympathy (just ask the ‘Stones)… life is tough for them right from the word ‘go.’ You see, Tasmanian devils are marsupial, meaning the young are born very under-developed and must crawl from the birth canal into their mother’s pouch to find a nipple to latch onto while they finish baking. The problem here is, devils give birth to between twenty and thirty babies, but possess only four nipples, which aren’t shared. In fact, they’re effectively stuck in the infant’s mouth from the time they latch on, preventing them from falling out of the mother’s pouch. So as newborn babies, fresh from the womb, they already have as much as an 87% chance of immediate death. That is some harsh selection right there. Somewhat tellingly, the babies can’t open their eyes until three months after their birth, yet come out of the womb with a full (if small) set of claws. You can see where evolution’s priorities were here.
But it doesn’t get much easier for the four that win the nipple race. Tasmanian devils are already working with a rather restricted range, having been hunted to local extinction on mainland Australia around 3000 years ago (probably by dingoes, which aren’t found in Tasmania). Nevertheless, they were doing pretty well in keeping their numbers up and had a healthy population until the mid-90s, when disaster struck.
Because the entire Tasmanian population of devils was originally based on only a few individuals, they’ve experienced a ‘Founder Effect,’ which basically means that the genetic diversity from one animal to the next is quite low. In terms of disease, they’re all susceptible to the same things. So when a form of transmissible cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) suddenly popped up in 1996, it spread like wildfire from one devil to the next, mostly via their tendency to bite one another during sex and mealtimes.
An infected devil quickly develops tumours on its face and inside its mouth. This eventually makes it difficult to eat, leading to starvation within a year of contracting the disease. DFTD is estimated to have already killed up to 50% of all devils, rushing them from a healthy population to an endangered species in record time. While the government has taken the step of building up a healthy, captive population which will be isolated from the disease, in the long term, this will have the effect of reducing the species genetic diversity even further. As a small glimmer of hope, researchers are now reported to have found a few individuals with at least partial immunity to the disease, and hope to try to build a cure based on their physiology.
- Tasmanian devils store fat reserves in their tails… a fat-tailed devil is a healthy devil.
- See the white spots on the devil pictured above? All bite marks. Each scar leaves a patch of white fur. The natural white streak on the devil’s thick-skinned chest is thought to draw attacks away from more sensitive areas.
- Unlike most other marsupials, the devil’s pouch opens to the rear of her body rather than the front (like a kangaroo), making it impossible for her to interact with her babies while they’re nursing there.
- Devils tend to try to eat whatever’s available when they’re hungry. The following have been found in their droppings: steel wool pot scrapers, tea towels, parts of leather shoes, blue jeans, plastic fragments, dog collars (minus the unfortunate dog that had been in it), and echidna spines.
- The only other known form of non-viral, transmissible cancer is a type of venereal disease that occurs in dogs.
- Attard et al. (2011) Journal of Zoology 285: 292-300
- Coghlan (2012) “’Immortal’ Tasmanian devil brings vaccine hope” New Scientist, 17 February
- Grzelewski (2002) Smithsonian 68: February
- Hamede et al. (2013) Journal of Animal Ecology 82: 182-190
- Hesterman et al. (2008) Journal of Zoology 275: 130-138
- Marshall (2011) “Tasmanian devils were sitting ducks for deadly cancer” New Scientist, 27 June