Spring 2003
Marsupial of the Season

 

Tasmanian Devil
(Sarcophilus harrisii)

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Family: Dasyuridae

 

Habitat and Distribution:

Evidence suggests that less than 3000 years ago, Devils were widespread over the Australian continent and remained so until 400 years prior to European settlement.    Devils are now restricted to Tasmania, where they are prevalent, surviving in areas ranging from rainforest, to scrub and woodland areas.

 

Status in the wild:

Extinct on Mainland Australia, but common in Tasmania.

 

Description:

The Tasmanian Devil is the largest of the carnivorous marsupials.      It is mostly black in colour, with some animals having white markings around the chest and shoulder areas.      Devils have a head and body length of 500 to 700mm, and an additional 230 to 300mm for the tail.

 

Devils are solidly built, having a large head with powerful jaws, short legs with sharp claws and comparatively broad shoulders.      They can weigh from 4.5kg to 12kg, with adult males being larger than females.

 

Breeding:

Devils usually live to around 8 years, and become sexually mature at the age of two.      The breeding cycle of the females usually lasts from the ages of 2 until 6 and mating will occur between the months of March and early June.     A litter of between 2 to 4 young will be born approximately 31 days later and will find their way to the mothers backward opening pouch and attach themselves to one of four nipples.    Should the mother give birth to more than four young the unlucky ones will die or be eaten.     

 

The young remain attached to a nipple in the mother’s pouch for between 13 to 15 weeks.     After this, they detach themselves from the teats and start to venture out of the pouch, and are sometimes left in a den while the mother scavenges for food.     The young may also ride on the back of the mother whilst she is scavenging, using their teeth and claws to hold on.

 

They are fully weaned at the age of 28 to 30 weeks, and living alone by the end of October.

 

Diet:

Devils are scavengers, mainly feeding on carrion, small invertebrates and insects.    They are clumsy and awkward killers, but have been known to attack young or weak animals, or sheep and poultry restricted in pens.    Devils will consume every part of their food, crushing the bones with their strong jaws, often leaving only the hard skull or tooth bearing jaw.

 

Their fondness of carrion is often the cause of they themselves

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 falling victim to road trauma and are occasionally seen dead at the side of the road adjacent to a wallaby or possum that was not quick enough to get out of the way of traffic.

  

General ecology: 

Devils are nocturnal, and spend their days resting in hollow logs, small caves or abandoned burrows.    Devils are ground dwellers and have a slow and clumsy gait, but have the ability to gallop quickly when necessary.     The Devil makes a variety of fierce noises, ranging from snorts, hollow barks and snarls to high-pitched screeches.

 

In the wild, they are solitary creatures, usually only joining with another Devil to mate, and in some cases, feed.    They can roam up to 16kms in search of food, using well-worn trails.

 

In captivity, Devils will establish a dominance hierarchy, showing aggression and fighting to establish their positions.  Fights can include clashing of teeth and jaw-wrestling, accompanied by snarls, screams and growls.

 

Bibliography:

Strahan, Ronald (1983) edited by “The Complete Book of Australia Mammals” published by Angus & Robertson.

Cayley, Neville W. (1987) “What Mammal Is That?” published by Angus & Robertson

Troughton, Ellis (1973) “Furred Animals of Australia” published by Angus & Robertson

Cronin, Leonard (1991)  “Key Guide to Australian Mammals”.  National Library of Australia.

Morecombe, Irene and Micheal (1979)  “Australian Mammals In Colour”   A.H. & A.W. Reed Pty Ltd.

 
 
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