The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) got its name from early European settlers who upon hearing mysterious unearthly screams, coughs and growls from the bush decided to investigate further. Finding the dog-like animal with red ears, wide jaws and big sharp teeth led them to call it "The Devil".
However the famous gape or yawn of the Tasmanian devil that looks so threatening, can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression. Although they do have an impressive and frightening screech!!
Aboriginal people also had several names for them, one of which is “purinina”.
Have a listen to a typical
vocalisation of the Tasmanian devil and you will see what we mean!
Devils once occurred on mainland Australia, with fossils having been found widely. But it is believed the devil became extinct on the mainland some 3,000 years ago - before European settlement. Devils probably became extinct there due to increasing aridity and the spread of the dingo, which was prevented by Bass Strait from entering Tasmania.
Today the devil is a Tasmanian icon but this hasn't always been the case. Tasmanian devils were considered a nuisance by early European settlers of Hobart Town, who complained of raids on poultry yards. 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.
For more than a century, devils were trapped and poisoned. They became very rare, seemingly headed for extinction. But the population gradually increased after they were protected by law in June 1941. During 1996 it became evident that Tasmanian devils were again under threat – this time from the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)
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 12kg and stand about 30 cm high at the shoulder. In the wild Tasmanian devils live up to six years.
Despite the decline in numbers since the early 1990s, populations of Tasmanian devils remain widespread in Tasmania from the coast to the mountains. They live in most landscapes, including coastal heath, open dry sclerophyll forest, and mixed sclerophyll-rainforest – Devils also take advantage of the interface between native habitat and agricultural paddocks, where their favourite prey species are often found.
Devils usually mate between February and May. After a gestation period of 21 days, up to 40 young are born. It's survival of the fittest as only a maximum of 4 young can be accommodated in the mother's pouch which has four teats.
Each young, firmly attached to a teat, is carried in the pouch for about four months. After this time, the young start venturing out of the pouch and are then left in a den, often a hollow log or disused wombat burrow, sometimes even under buildings. As they grow bigger they will start to venture out further from their den, weaning at arounf 10 months of age. Juveniles have left their mother by late summer to find a new home range. Devils are mature and can start breeding at the end end of their second year, sometimes earlier.
The Tasmanian devil is mainly a scavenger and a hunter feeding on whatever is available. Powerful jaws and teeth enable it to completely devour its prey - bones, fur and all. Native animals such as wallabies, possums and wombats are favourites 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. Tasmanian 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.
The Tasmanian 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. Devils usually amble slowly with a characteristic gait but can gallop quickly with both hind feet together. Young Tasmanian devils are more agile however and can climb trees. Although not territorial, Tasmanian devils have a home range, which can be very large if resources are scarce.
Tasmanian devils can swim if required and seem to enjoy love water and will wade and splash about, even sitting or lying down in it to stay cool. They will often dabble in water with their front paws, somewhat in the manner of racoons.
The famous gape or yawn of the Tasmanian devil that looks so threatening, can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression. Tasmanian devils natural odour is not unpleasant. The Tasmanian 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.
Traditionally their numbers were controlled by food availability, competition with other devils and quolls, loss of habitat, persecution and vehicle strike. But the greatest recent threat to devils across Tasmania is the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). Today, the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease is listed as a declared disease in the Tasmanian Biosecurity Compendium, in accordance with section 9, Biosecurity Act 2019, and the Biosecurity Regulations 2022. For more information visit: Declared Pests & Diseases.
The Tasmanian devil is wholly protected.
In May 2009, the Federal Government up-listed the Tasmanian devil to the 'endangered' category under the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The Tasmanian devil's status was formally upgraded to 'endangered' under Tasmania's Threatened Species Protection Act 1995, in May 2008.
In late 2008, the Tasmanian devil was also up-listed to 'Endangered' on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) - widely considered the most authoritative system for classifying species in terms of their risk of extinction.
Visit the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.