Reading this list of Tasmanian Devil facts will help us uncover the unique aspects of this intriguing marsupial native to Australia. While humans often misunderstand them because of their appearance and reputation, their true nature will give us a genuine appreciation of these creatures.
A notable Tasmanian Devil fact is their impressive bite, which is more powerful than their small size indicates. And interestingly, their unusual social behavior involves aggression and cooperation, particularly during feeding sessions.
The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, belonging to the same lineage as the extinct Tasmanian tiger. With its muscular frame, this extraordinary animal can overpower big or small prey with impressive agility.
Its dark fur with a white stripe across the chest allows it to blend into the dense forests and scrublands. This chest stripe varies in size and shape among individuals, distinguishing one devil from the other.
The stripe might serve as a warning signal to other devils. This chest marking also helps minimize conflicts among these highly territorial creatures. For example, before devils fight each other, the chest stripe could be a visual cue to back off.
The Tasmanian Devil eats prey or animal carcasses while roaming under darkness. Nights in Tasmania give these predators an advantage while hunting or scavenging. They quickly detect potential meals thanks to their extraordinary senses of smell and hearing.
Furthermore, their nocturnal habits aid in regulating their body temperature in Tasmania's colder environment. Their exceptional night vision allows them to navigate their surroundings and detect prey easily. Intriguingly, research indicates that the moon's phases may impact their activity levels; Tasmanian Devils tend to be more active during darker nights.
Upon reaching the island of Tasmania, off mainland Australia, in the 19th century, early European settlers stumbled upon the Tasmanian Devil (also called Tassie Devil), which scared them due to its loudness and aggression.
These nocturnal creatures made high-pitched screeches, growls, and screams as they roamed the night for food. Their eerie vocalizations helped the animals communicate, establish dominance, and deter predators. No wonder these settlers called the animal "Tasmanian Devil".
Although these marsupials might seem hostile, they are primarily aggressive toward their kind, with whom they compete for resources. Moreover, Tasmanian Devils often fight each other for food or potential mates. They bite, lunge, and scratch one another during combat.
Despite their fearsome reputation, these reclusive animals avoid unnecessary contact with humans. In the wild, their aggressive behavior mainly serves as a defense mechanism.
Contrary to popular belief, a Tasmanian devil yawn doesn't signal aggression. Instead, it communicates fear or uncertainty. This unique behavior, called "gaping," involves the devil widely opening its mouth, flaunting its formidable set of teeth. Still, many misinterpret this seemingly threatening act, which is, in fact, a response to stress or anxiety.
When encountering a rival or potential predator, Tasmanian Devils might yawn as a gesture of submission. This clever tactic helps avert unnecessary confrontations and maintain a social hierarchy within devil populations. According to scientists, yawning is also a coping mechanism, allowing Tasmanian Devils to manage stress or fear during challenging situations5.
Tasmanian Devils can detect scents from distances as far as a kilometer away2. Their powerful noses help them locate carrion or live prey in Tasmania's dense forests and scrublands. Moreover, they can detect carcasses buried under vegetation or soil.
Additionally, Tasmanian Devils' keen sense of smell makes hunting small mammals, birds, and reptiles much easier. During hunts, these animals can track down their prey's scent trails. Their sense of smell also assists them in communication and navigation within their social structures.
Within their territories, Tasmanian Devils use scent glands near the anus to mark boundaries and signal their presence to others. During mating season, distinct scents attract potential mates and demonstrate their readiness for breeding.
Moreover, their olfactory abilities help them recognize the smell of their young, fostering a strong bond between mother and offspring. This heightened sense of smell also allows them to differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar devils, helping them avoid potential conflicts and maintain hierarchical order in their communities.
Tasmanian Devils eat whatever is available in their environment. With a penchant for insects, birds, and small mammals, the Tasmanian Devil's appetite enables them to switch between scavenging carcasses and actively hunting live prey. Sometimes, adults even eat young devils, especially when hungry.
While hunting, Tasmanian Devils swiftly track their targets with remarkable speed and agility. Then, they grab them with their strong jaws and devour them with razor-sharp teeth.
On the other hand, they also consume dead animals often left behind by other predators. They eat every part of the carcass, from bones to fur, leaving no waste. Eating animal bones supplies them with vital nutrients like calcium and phosphorus.
Tasmanian Devils may look stocky and muscular, but they can run up to 13 kilometers per hour (8 miles per hour). Their short but powerful limbs help them achieve such speeds over short bursts, helping them catch wallabies and other small mammals efficiently.
Moreover, Tasmanian Devils can easily traverse challenging terrain, helping them avoid predators and engage in territorial disputes and mate competitions.
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With powerful muscles accounting for roughly 25% of their body mass, Tasmanian Devils can easily crush bones and rip through the toughest hides. Their jaw can open to 80 degrees, allowing them to bite with 553 Newtons of bite force. Despite their small size, this marsupial has the strongest bite among all carnivorous mammals.
The Tasmanian Devil has 42 teeth composed of large, sharp premolars and molars designed for grinding and crushing. Interestingly, these teeth grow continuously throughout their lives.
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The enigmatic Tasmanian Devils thrive in Tasmania's dense forests and coastal scrublands, an island off mainland Australia. The Devils find refuge in hollow logs, caves, and burrows as highly adaptable creatures. They can also climb trees. Mastering their environment often allows them to beat a quick retreat when necessary.
Dense forests and coastal scrublands allow the elusive marsupials to remain hidden from potential predators and ambush their prey. Moreover, their home range often spans several square kilometers. As predators and scavengers, the Devils control smaller animal populations and keep diseases away by scavenging carcasses.
On average, adult Devils live for five to six years in the wild. Disease, particularly the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), predation, and competition for scarce resources affect their lifespan, leading to high infant mortality rates and a fierce struggle for existence.
Despite their brief lives, Tasmanian Devils have evolved certain behaviors and adaptations for survival. For example, female devils can give birth to 30 young at once. They have also adapted powerful jaws and sharp teeth to hunt and scavenge for food efficiently.
During the Tasmanian Devil's breeding season, males face stiff competition to mate with a female. They aggressively fight with rivals to establish dominance and boost their odds1.
These ferocious encounters feature biting, scratching, and ear-piercing vocalizations, leaving both contenders with severe injuries, like deep cuts, puncture wounds, and ripped ears. Yet, despite the intensity, fatalities remain relatively rare. Instead, the winner secures his rank in the hierarchy.
Researchers believe the devils' evolved aggressive mating behavior to produce the fittest offspring. By brawling for a mate, dominant males flaunt their strength, resilience, and capacity to protect and care for their young.
Conversely, females may also display aggression towards undesirable suitors. When a male wins the fight, he often guards a female for days, ensuring his success in mating and perpetuating the cycle.
Female Tasmanian Devils can give birth to as many as 30 tiny, underdeveloped babies (called imps) in a single litter. These minuscule newborns, merely a centimeter long, look nothing like their adult counterparts. Incredibly, these fragile infants must navigate the few centimeters from the birth canal to their mother's pouch for safety and nourishment.
While rearing 30 baby devils might seem overwhelming, nature has developed a unique way to balance its population. The pouch contains only four teats, so only four offspring can latch on and receive the necessary nourishment.
Once nestled within the pouch, the young devils suckle on their mother's milk over the next 100 days. The imps undergo rapid growth and maturation during this period before finally emerging from the pouch.
This nurturing process, though seemingly harsh, emphasizes the inherent strength and adaptability of these marsupials. It ensures that only the most resilient Tasmanian Devil Joey survives to carry on their lineage.
One of the most significant threats4 looming over the Tasmanian devil population is Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), a highly contagious and lethal cancer. First documented in the mid-1990s, this insidious disease has decimated the species, killing over 80% of wild devils. The cancer cells primarily transmit through social interactions particularly when these animals bite each other3.
Researchers have identified two distinct strains of DFTD. The tumors mostly develop on the face and around the mouth of infected devils, impeding their ability to eat. Presently, no known cure or effective treatment exists. Nevertheless, scientists continue to delve deeper into the disease's mechanisms, tirelessly exploring potential treatment and prevention strategies.
Recently, a glimmer of hope has emerged for the species; some Tasmanian Devils have shown signs of evolving resistance to DFTD. Continued research and conservation efforts, such as captive breeding programs and the creation of disease-free "insurance populations,” should lead to more breakthroughs regarding this disease.
As the Tasmanian Devil population dwindles alarmingly, several conservation initiatives have emerged to protect these extraordinary animals. The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP) is particularly noteworthy among these efforts.
Established in 2003 by the Australian and Tasmanian governments, this program aims to preserve a genetically diverse, healthy population of devils in captivity.
Collaborating with various zoos, wildlife parks, and research institutions, the STDP has successfully bred over 700 Tasmanian devils throughout Australia and beyond. In tandem with these breeding initiatives, vital habitat restoration projects are underway to ensure the long-term survival of the Tasmanian devil.
These projects target improving the devils' living conditions by mitigating threats like habitat loss, predation, and competition for scarce resources.
Moreover, community engagement and education are increasingly important in preserving the Tasmanian devil. By raising public awareness about the species' struggles and promoting support for ongoing conservation efforts, these initiatives aim to rally people around this intrepid devil.
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Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with T.
Hamede, R. K., McCallum, H., & Jones, M. (2008). Seasonal, demographic and density-related patterns of contact between Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii): Implications for transmission of devil facial tumour disease. Austral Ecology, 33(5), 614-622.
Pemberton, D., & Renouf, D. (1993). A field-study of communication and social-behavior of the Tasmanian devil at feeding sites. Australian Journal of Zoology, 41(5), 507-526.
Epstein, B., Jones, M., Hamede, R., Hendricks, S., McCallum, H., Murchison, E. P., Schonfeld, B., Wiench, C., Hohenlohe, P., & Storfer, A. (2016). Rapid evolutionary response to a transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils. Nature Communications, 7, 12684.
Hamede, R. K., McCallum, H., & Jones, M. (2013). Biting injuries and transmission of Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease. Journal of Animal Ecology, 82(1), 182-190.
Buchmann, O. L., & Guiler, E. R. (1977). Behaviour and ecology of the Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii. In The biology of marsupials (pp. 155-168). Palgrave, London.