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June 20, 2022

Spotlight on the Tasmanian Devil

The Tasmanian Devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world. Standing up to 30cm height, growing to about 75cm in length and weighing 10-14kg at maturity, it sits at the top of the food chain in the only place it is found, Tasmania.

Its compact face has a short muzzle, long whiskers, dark eyes and a powerful jaw with sharp teeth; its head is oversized relative to its body, taking up nearly a quarter of the devil’s total weight when mature.

These strangely proportioned animals have short back limbs and long front limbs, with coarse black or brown fur and white markings on their chests. Their powerful limbs make young devils surprisingly deft tree climbers. Adult males are slightly larger than females, the latter of which are equipped with pouches like the Kangaroo and the Koala.

Versatile Carnivores

Devils aren't fussy eaters. Their keen senses of smell and hearing help them hunt live prey, like mammals and birds, and their diet also consists of insects or reptiles.

But they prefer scavenging to hunting and usually feed on carrion, the carcasses of already dead animals; happily consuming the muscles, organs, hair and even the bones of carcasses.

They can travel over 16km in a night in search of food. Typically solitary in nature, they do come together to eat. But sharing a meal is no peaceful event, as these energetic animals lunge, bare teeth and make guttural growls at one another to assert dominance when feeding.      

From Humble Beginnings

Even though they can live for up to 5 to 8 years, few individuals survive in the wild past 3 or 4 years of age. Mating once a year upon reaching adulthood, female Tasmanian devils have a pregnancy that lasts for around 3 weeks before giving birth to over twenty, tiny under-developed babies, called imps.

Tasmanian Devils spend their first 4 months in their mother's pouch before they are fully developed. However, female only have four nipples, so only a fraction of the babies will survive past infancy.  

After leaving their mother's pouch, joeys are carried on their mother's back for a few more months. But they reach adulthood by eight or nine months of age, becoming independent and seeking out their own ‘range’ or territory.

Habitat and Ecology

Today, Tasmanian Devils are found throughout Tasmania inhabiting coastal scrublands and sclerophyll rainforests; habitat comprised of vegetation like eucalyptus, wattle and banksia and other Australian flora that flourish in areas with low soil fertility. They make their dens in caves, in wombat holes and in the hollows of logs.

The Tasmanian Devil is playing an important role in the Tasmanian ecosystem. As the top predator in Tasmania, they prey on the young of introduced species like feral cats, foxes and help keep their numbers in check.  

The extinction of this species would have a detrimental consequence for Tasmania’s biodiversity and ecosystems. Not only do foxes and cats breed quickly; they also kill native Tasmanian animals including bandicoots, quoll and New Holland mice. So, the disappearance of the Tasmanian Devil in the wild would lead to further species extinction in Tasmania.

A Declining Population

The Tasmanian Devil population is now struggling to survive. With as few as twenty thousand individuals left in the wild, the Tasmanian Devil is now listed as an endangered species in Tasmania. A type of contagious cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is ravaging the population. No vaccine exists; it is almost always fatal and can kill within just a few months.  

DFTD is spread between Tasmanian devils through fighting and mating, and it causes tumours to grow on the animals' faces and necks; deforming them so much that it becomes hard to eat and they starve to death. Since its discovery the Tasmanian devil population has declined by more than 80%.

To worsen matters, Tasmanian Devils are also attacked by foxes, domestic dogs and killed by cars when feeding on roadkill. Habitat loss from bushfires and logging is a big problem as Tasmanian Devils are more likely to establish ranges in areas where they are exposed to these threats.        

Help us Protect the Tasmanian Devil

It has never been more important to protect the remaining population in the wild from additional threats, such as habitat loss from deforestation. But plans are now in place to log Tasmania’s old-growth native forests and burn them in power plants to generate electricity.

The previous federal government allocated millions of dollars of tax-payer funds for “preparing forest industries for the future.” This research is happening now. If this industry takes off, the future is bleak: it is the destruction of habitat for already vulnerable native animals like the Tasmanian Devil.

You can help us to help the Tasmanian Devil and other Australian species that will be heavily impacted by this emerging industry. Share this article, join our community or support our current campaign to prevent burning Australia’s forests for power.  

By Zoe Martin

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