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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 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
Devils once occurred on mainland Australia, with fossils having
been found widely. Today, however the devil is only found in Tasmania. It
is believed the devil became extinct on the mainland some 600 years ago -
before European settlement of the continent. The dingo, which was brought
into Australia by Aboriginal people, is believed to have ousted the devil
from the mainland.
are particularly common in some north, east and central districts where
some farming practices (e.g. rangeland sheep grazing) provide much
carrion. Tasmanian devils can be seen in many rural and wilderness areas
by slowly driving at night along secondary roads. Devils are readily seen
at the Narawntapu
(formerly Asbestos Range) National Park, Mt.
William National Park, Cradle
Mt. National Park, the Arthur River and highland lakes area. Look for
them a few hours after sunset.
Devils are 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.
Click on the picture to view
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.
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.
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.
were 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. This story has a happy ending, however, because the
population then gradually increased until today the Tasmanian devil is
abundant and apparently safe. Fittingly, the Tasmanian devil was chosen as
the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service.
People sometimes say that devils
are in 'plague proportions'. All they are really saying is that there are
more than they would prefer to see. Both devil and quoll populations
naturally swell dramatically each summer when young disperse into the
wild. This is a short-lived phenomenon as 60% will die within the first
few months due to competition for food. The increase is a seasonal
fluctuation, not a plague. Tasmanian devils are wholly