About Tasmanian Devils
The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) 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.
Have a listen to a typical vocalisation of the Tasmanian devil and you will see what we mean!
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.
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.
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 80 per cent decline in spotlighting sightings since the disease emerged. In the north-east of the State, where signs of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) were first reported, there has been a 95 per cent decline (approximately) of average spotlighting sightings from 1993-95 to 2002-05.
Although four 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.
Tasmanian devils are famous for their rowdy communal feeding at carcasses - the noise and displays being used to establish dominance amongst the pack.
The famous gape or yawn of the Tasmanian devil that looks so threatening, can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression. Tasmanian devils produce a strong odour when under stress, but when calm and relaxed they are not smelly. The Tasmanian 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.
The Tasmanian devil’s status was formally upgraded to ‘endangered’ under Tasmania’s Threatened Species Protection Act 1995, in May 2008.
In late 2008, the Tasmanian devil was also uplisted to ‘Endangered’ on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) – widely considered the most authoritative system for classifying species in terms of their risk of extinction.
The Tasmanian devil is wholly protected.
Traditionally their numbers were controlled by food availability, competition with other devils and quolls, loss of habitat, persecution and roadkills. But 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.
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