[Frequently Asked Questions about the Tasmanian Devil]
Devil Disease: A devastating disease is sweeping through Tasmania's devil population, killing more than 90% of adults in high density areas and 40-50% in medium-low density areas. See the Department of Primary Industries and Water's web pages for details. See also the Save the Tasmanian Devil web site.
The eerie call of the Tasmanian devil
is a sound you will never forget!
The Tasmanian devil cannot be mistaken for any other marsupial. Its spine-chilling screeches, black colour, and reputed bad-temper, led the early European settlers to call it The Devil. Although only the size of a small dog, it can sound and look incredibly fierce.
Take a listen to the vocalisation of the devil and you will see what we mean!
The world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, the devil has a thick-set, squat build, with a relatively large, broad head and short, thick tail. The fur is mostly or wholly black, but white markings often occur on the rump and chest. Body size also varies greatly, depending on the diet and habitat. Adult males are usually larger than adult females. Large males weigh up to 12 kg, and stand about 30 cm high at the shoulder.
Click upon the movie to view (4.2Mb)
Devils once occurred on mainland Australia, with fossils having been found widely. But it is believed the devil became extinct on the mainland some 400 years ago – before European settlement. Devils probably became extinct there due to increasing aridity and the spread of the dingo, which was prevented by Bass Strait from entering Tasmania.
Today the devil is a Tasmanian icon. But it hasn’t always held this status. Tasmanian devils were considered a nuisance by early European settlers of Hobart Town, who complained of raids on poultry yards. In 1930 the Van Diemen’s Land Co. introduced a bounty scheme to remove devils, as well as Tasmanian tigers and wild dogs, from their northwest properties: 2/6 (25 cents) for male devils and 3/6 (35 cents) for females.
Tasmanian Devil (Photo by Steve Johnson)
For more than a century, devils were trapped and poisoned. They became very rare, seemingly headed for extinction. But the population gradually increased after they were protected by law in June 1941.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that devil numbers were quite variable over the past century, but were at historic highs about 10 years ago. They were particularly common in forest, woodland and agricultural areas of northern, eastern and central Tasmania.
These numbers have dropped since the 1996 identification of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) - a fatal condition in Tasmanian devils, characterised by cancers around the mouth and head.
There has been a 64 per cent decline in spotlighting sightings since the disease emerged. In the north-east of the State, where signs of the Tasmanian devil disease were first reported, there has been a 95 per cent decline (approximately) of average spotlighting sightings from 1993-95 to 2002-05.
Despite the decline in numbers in the past 10 years, populations of Tasmanian devils remain widespread in Tasmania from the coast to the mountains. 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.
Tasmanian devil with 3 month old pouch young (Photograph by Ingrid Albion)
Devils usually mate in March, and the young are born in April. Gestation is 21 days. More young are born than can be accommodated in the mother's backward-opening pouch, which has 4 teats. Although 4 pouch young sometimes survive, the average number is 2 or 3. Each young, firmly attached to a teat, is carried in the pouch for about 4 months. After this time the young start venturing out of the pouch and are then left in a simple den - often a hollow log. Young are weaned at 5 or 6 months of age, and are thought to have left the mother and be living alone in the bush by late December. They probably start breeding at the end of their second year. Longevity is up to 7-8 years.
The devil is mainly a scavenger and feeds on whatever is available. Powerful jaws and teeth enable it to completely devour its prey -- bones, fur and all. Wallabies, and various small mammals and birds, are eaten -- either as carrion or prey. Reptiles, amphibians, insects and even sea squirts have been found in the stomachs of wild devils. Carcasses of sheep and cattle provide food in farming areas. Devils maintain bush and farm hygiene by cleaning up carcasses. This can help reduce the risk of blowfly strike to sheep by removing food for maggots.
Devils are famous for their rowdy communal feeding at carcasses -- the noise and displays being used to establish dominance amongst the pack
Tasmanian devils are nocturnal scavengers
The devil is nocturnal (active after dark). During the day it usually hides in a den, or dense bush. It roams considerable distances --up to 16 km -- along well-defined trails in search of food. It usually ambles slowly with a characteristic gait but can gallop quickly with both hind feet together. Young devils are more agile however and can climb trees. Although not territorial, devils have a home range.
The famous gape or yawn of the devil that looks so threatening, can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression. Devils produce a strong odour when under stress, but when calm and relaxed they are not smelly. The 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.
In May 2008, The Tasmanian devil’s status was formally upgraded to ‘endangered’ under Tasmania’s Threatened Species Protection Act 1995.
The expert Threatened Species Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) completed its five-year review of species listed in the Act's schedules, and recommended that the Tasmanian devil be moved 'up the list' because of its increasing vulnerability.
Meanwhile, the Federal Government has included the Tasmanian devil under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. They are wholly protected.
Traditionally their numbers were controlled by food availability, competition with other devils and quolls, loss of habitat, persecution and roadkills. But today the greatest recent threat to devils across Tasmania is the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). In September 2006, the Tasmanian devil disease was gazetted under the Animal Health Act as a List B notifiable disease.
A potential, unquantified threat is the introduction into Tasmania of the red fox, which would compete directly with Tasmanian devil juveniles. Both species share preferences for den sites and habitat, and are of similar size.
Historically, devils were considered a nuisance to the early European settlers of Hobart Town, raiding the poultry yards, but were soon driven away to more remote areas of the island. In 1830 the Van Diemen's Land Co. introduced a bounty scheme to remove devils, as well as Tasmanian tigers and wild dogs, from their northwest properties: 2/6 (25 cents) for male devils and 3/6 (35 cents) for females. Devils ate animals caught in snares, and were believed to take lambs and sheep. For over a century they were trapped and poisoned and became very rare. They seemed, like the Tasmanian tiger, to be headed for extinction. Despite this the Tasmanian devil was not protected by law until June 1941. After this the population, until recently, gradually increased and the Tasmanian devil was chosen as the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Tasmanian devils are wholly protected. The Devil Facial Tumour Disease, which is now having a devastating effect on the Tasmanian devil population was first noticed in the north-east of Tasmania in the mid-1990s but has become more prevalent in recent times in other areas of the State.