Tasmanian Devil

 (Sarcophilus harrisii)

 

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The Tasmanian Devil 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. Powerful jaw and teeth enable it to completely devour its’ prey – bones, fur and all. In prehistoric times, the animal roamed widely over mainland Australia. Today, however, the hardy little devil is only found in Tasmania. 

 

Appearance 

 

It has a thick-set, squat build, with relatively large broad head and short, thick tail. The fur is mostly or wholly black, but white markings often occur on the chest, rump and shoulders. These markings vary between individuals. Body size also varies greatly, depending on the diet and habitat (living place). Adult males are usually larger than adult females. Large males weigh up to 12kg, and stand about 30cm at the shoulder. 

 

Breeding 

 

Devils mate in March, and the young are born in April or May. More young are born than can be accommodated in the mother’s pouch, which has 4 teats. Although 4 pouch young often occur, the average number is 3. Each young, firmly attached to a teat, is carried in the rear-opening pouch for about 15 weeks.  After this time, the young start venturing out of the pouch, and may sometimes be left in a simple nest. For a few weeks, when the mother searches for food, the young ride on her back – clinging firmly with teeth and claws. Young devils are weaned after about 5 or 6 months, and are thought to have left the mother and be living alone in the bush by late October. They probably start breeding at the end of their second year. 

 

Food 

 

The Tasmanian Devil is a meat-eater (carnivore). It is the largest member of the family of carnivorous marsupials, the Dasyuridae. This family includes the native cat, tiger cat and marsupial mice. The devil is mainly a scavenger and feeds on whatever is available. Wallabies, and various small mammals and birds, are eaten – either as carrion or prey. Reptiles, amphibians and even sea squirts have been found in the stomachs of wild devils. Carcasses of sheep and cattle provide food in farming areas. 

 

Habitat 

 

Devils are widespread in Tasmania from the coast to the mountains, from cold wet to warm dry areas. 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. 

 

Habits

 

The animal is most active after dark (nocturnal), and is rarely seen during the day when it hides in a hole, rocky cavern or dense bush. The devil roams up to 16kms in a night, in search of food – using well-defined trails. It usually ambles slowly and clumsily, but can gallop quickly with both hind feet together. Although devils have a reputation for preying on sheep and poultry, studies have shown that they are bumbling, rather inept killers, and probably kill only very small, weak or trapped animals. They are, however, very efficient scavengers, and flourish near farms where dead sheep or cattle are left in the paddocks. Then feeding, they sit, grasping food in their forepaws and bolting it down in large chunks. Everything is eaten including the intestines, which are crammed into the mouth like spaghetti.  

 

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, unpleasant odour when under stress, but, when calm and relaxed, are not smelly, and are clean, tidy animals. 

 

Sound 

 

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. 

 

History and Distribution 

 

Fossils are found all over the Australian mainland, but even before European settlement began, the devil was confined to Tasmania. Devils were a nuisance to the early settler of Hobart Town, raiding the poultry yards, but were soon driven away to more remote areas of the island. In 1830 the Van Dieman’s Land Co. introduced a bounty scheme to remove the devils, as well as Tasmanian Tigers and wild dogs, from their north-west properties: 2/6 for males and 3/6 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 Sarcophilus harrisii is abundant and apparently safe. Fittingly, the Tasmanian devil was chosen as the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service. 

 

Further Reading 

 

Buchmann, O.L.K. and Guller, E.R (1977): Behaviour and ecology of the Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus Harrisii.  The Biology of Marsupials. 

 

Green, R.H. (1973): The Mammals of Tasmania.

 

Grzlmek, B. (1972): Animal Life Encyclopedia, vol 10.

 

Guiler, E.R. (1970): Observations on the Tasmanian Devil, I and II. 

 

Australian Journal of Zoology, vol 18

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