With sharp pointy teeth, a spine-tingling screech and the strongest bite for an animal of its size, the Tasmanian devil put fear in the European settlers who came to the island.
Read on about these pint-sized predators found only on the apple isle.
What is a Tasmanian Devil?
The Tasmanian devil is a carnivorous marsupial found, as the name suggests, on the island of Tasmania. They grow to the size of a small dog with a stocky build, mousey-ears and black fur. But don’t let their cute appearance fool you, the Tasmanian devil possesses the world’s most powerful bite in proportion to its size, thanks to its strong jaw and disproportionately large head. The strong and robust animals can climb trees, swim and run at a considerable speed. Combine that with the blood-curdling screech they emit when eating and their strong pungent odour and you can start to understand how they got their name.
While usually solitary, Tasmanian devils do sometimes eat in groups of up to six. They have a reputation for violent and aggressive behaviour when threatened or fighting over a mate or food. The displays of teeth-baring, deep growling and threatening lunging is considered more a reaction to fear, rather than an imminent sign of an aggressive attack. They are capable of hunting wallabies, wombats and small marsupials, but more often scavenge carrion of whatever they can find.
While the female will give birth to up to 40 babies in her rear-facing pouch, only a handful will survive feeding from the mother’s four teats. The joeys emerge from the pouch at around four months old and become independent from around eight months.
Where did they get the name “Tasmanian Devil”?
When early European settlers arrived on Tasmania, they thought the terrifying screams that pierced the night could only belong to a demon. When they discovered the small dog-like animal with sharp teeth and red ears, the gave it the name “Devil”.
While fossils of Tasmanian devil bones have been found on Australian mainland, it is thought that the marsupial disappeared from there around 3000 years ago. This could be due to predation from the dingo, which arrived around 4000 years ago and aren’t found on Tasmania.
Threats to devils in the wild
The arrival of European settlers to the island saw a reduction in the population of the Tasmanian Devil as their habitat was destroyed and they were trapped and poisoned to protect livestock. Threatened with extinction, like its relative the Tasmanian tiger, Tasmanian devils were protected by law in 1941 and their numbers slowly increased.
While the population showed promising signs of returning, in the mid-1990s a new threat to the Tasmanian devil was discovered. Devil face tumour disease (DFTD) is a contagious cancer causing lumps to form of the devil’s mouth, making it difficult to eat. The animals can live up to two years with the disease before they eventually die of starvation.
Conservationists have been working on a vaccine to prevent the disease, while attempting to quarantine unaffected populations. There are also promising signs that some animals have recovered from the disease, leading hopeful researches to believe the Tasmanian devil could be adapting to combat the disease by itself.
While Tasmanian devils are still found in the wild, they are shy animals mostly active at night, so spotting one is not common. The best way to observe these animals is in a wildlife park. Zoos and sanctuaries also play an important role in protecting Tasmanian devils from DFTD and growing a healthy population with captive breeding programs.
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