Factsheet 4 : Australian Tasmanian devils

Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), Tasman...

Image via Wikipedia

Cartoon feature at

http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/kids/animals/creaturefeature/tasmanian-devil/

Where do Tasmanian devils live?

Wild Tasmanian devils can only be found in the wild in Tasmania (Australia).

There are many devils in the Tasmanian wilderness areas and in our National Parks. They also live in areas where there are farms and when farm animals die, devils will sometimes eat the carcasses.

Hundreds of years ago, Tasmanian devils not only lived in Tasmania, but also on the Australian mainland. We know this from fossils that have been found. They became extinct on the mainland about 400 years ago.

What do devils look like?

Devils are mostly black but usually have white markings on the rump or the chest. Adult male devils are usually bigger than the females. They stand about 30 centimetres (or 12 inches) high at the shoulder and weigh up to 12 kilograms.

Adult devils have heads that look almost too big for their bodies. In older males, the head and neck can take up nearly a quarter of their weight. That’s because devils need those powerful jaws to crunch through bones.

Like other marsupials, the devil stores fat in its tail so that its body has something to draw on when food gets scarce. So, if you see a Tasmanian devil with a fat tail, it means it is in good condition.

What type of animal is a Tasmanian devil?

The Tasmanian devil is a marsupial. Female marsupial animals have pouches in which they carry their young.

The pouch helps the Tasmanian devil mother to feed and protect newly born devils. There are four teats in the pouch, so she can look after four little devils at the same time.

Are devils dangerous to people?

No, devils are not dangerous. They do not attack people, although they will defend themselves if they’re attacked or trapped.

Devils may look fierce but they will much rather escape than fight. However, devils have powerful jaws and when they do bite, they can cause serious injury.

What is their scientific name?

Their Latin scientific name is Sarcophilus harrisii. That means Harris’s meat lover. Harris is the name of the scientist who described the Tasmanian devil.

Devil history

The early European settlers of Hobart didn’t like them, because the devils ate their chickens and they thought the devils would eat other farm animals too. So, they hunted the devils. In 1830 the Van Diemen’s Land Company put up a reward for every devil killed on their property. The reward was two shillings and sixpence (25 cents) for a male devil and three shillings and sixpence (35 cents) for a female.

For many years, Tasmanian devils were caught in traps and shot. They almost disappeared and some people thought devils would become extinct, like the Tasmanian tiger. It was only in 1941 that laws protected the devils.

The devil population increased again over the years, but there is now a new worry. Many Tasmanian devils are dying from a disease called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). Scientists are working hard to find a cure and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program is working to save them from extinction.

Are devils useful?

They certainly are. Devils play an important role, by eating sick and dead animals. They probably also help to control feral cats in Tasmania and, by doing so, they help to protect some of our native species, particularly birds. They can even help us control animals that do not belong in Tasmania – such as the red fox, an animal that is a big problem on the Australian mainland. While there are many devils around, it is very difficult for foxes to breed in Tasmania. Fox dens are very smelly and quite messy, so devils can quickly sniff them out.

Devils are also useful in other ways. Think about things that are unique to Tasmania and the Tasmanian devil will probably be at the top of your list. Tourists love to see our devils and they will travel long distances to do so. Devils are so popular that products and sports teams are named after them.

Devils are carnivores, which means they will eat other animals. They are also scavengers, and they’re not too fussy at dinnertime.

They often eat half-rotten meat and scavenge in the bush and on farms, like natural vacuum cleaners, keeping the bush healthy and reducing maggots, which can lead to fly strike in sheep. Of course they also like fresh meat, and they sometimes go hunting for food. They’ll eat lizards, frogs and insects, in fact almost anything they can find.

When devils find a dead animal, such as a wallaby, they will eat it – bones, fur and all. They seem to like wombat meat, maybe because it has a lot of fat.

When devils eat they usually make a lot of noise. This is because some devils want to show the others who is boss.

How much do devils eat?

Devils can eat about 5 to 10% of their body weight in a day – and probably more at a feast if they are really hungry.

An adult devil weighing 10 kg will eat up to 1 kg of food a day.

Do they eat farm animals such as sheep and cows?

When a farm animal dies, the devils will usually eat it. If it’s a cow, they will only eat small bits, like the udder and the mouth, because the cow’s skin is too thick for devils. Sheep and lambs that are sick or injured may also be killed and eaten. Healthy animals are safe, but chickens or ducks that roost on the ground may be just too tempting for a hungry devil.

Do devils hunt in packs?

As far as we know, devils do not form packs like dogs do. Sometimes, many devils can be found in one place at the same time – and they may even try to hunt the same animal – but that doesn’t mean they are organised or working together in any way. In devil world, it’s each animal for himself.

Devil mothers are pregnant for about 21 days. The mother can give birth to 20-40 young, which are each about the size of a grain of rice. However, she has only four teats in her pouch, so it is a race to the pouch, with the first four winning a chance at survival. It’s tough being a young devil.

The mother carries her young, which are called imps or joeys, in her pouch for about four months. When the imps are ready to leave the pouch, the mother leaves them in a simple den to get used to the outside world. The mother puts in a lot of effort to care for her young. She’ll regularly come back to the den to feed them milk and take them on forages to teach the young ones how to find and catch their own food. The imps are weaned when they are about 10 months old.

Tasmanian devils are mature when they are two years old. They live for about five or six years, although if conditions are good they can live up to seven or eight years.

Are male and female devils the same size?

No. An adult female weighs about seven or eight kilograms while an adult male weighs about 10 or 11 kilograms.

Females can weigh about 8 or 9 kilograms when they are pregnant or feeding their young, then they usually drop back to about 7 kg.

Do they have predators?

Before they became extinct, thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) must have hunted devils. Large birds of prey, such as eagles, may go after young devils when they come out by day. At night, large owls (such as the masked owl) and large quolls (such as the spotted tail quoll) may attack young devils. And, if they are hungry enough, large devils may even eat the smaller ones. The reason why young devils can climb so well may be so that they can escape large devils.

Links to our (adult) website

For more information, go to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Programwebsite.

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