Okay—here’s the one you’ve been waiting for: the Tasmanian devil. Echidnas and wallabies are all well and good, but it was the Tasmanian devil that we grew up watching in cartoons. While the whirling of the cartoon character is entirely fictional, the snarling/growling sound is anchored in reality—though real Tasmanian devils sound much worse than the cartoon, adding to the snarling and growling a whole range of barking, snorting, and screaming.
Tasmanian devils, like almost all other Australian mammals, are marsupials—they carry their young in pouches. Like the koala and wombat, the Tasmanian devil has a rear-facing pouch. As with other marsupials, the pouch-dwellers are called joeys. However, in devils, the whole early life experience is a bit rougher than it is for most other marsupials. Mom bears up to 50 babies but has only four teats. The tiny newborns have to crawl into the pouch and compete for one of the four teats, to which they attach until weaned. The others just die. After six months, the babies are on their own. If they manage to live to the end of the first year, they’ll probably enjoy a full life—which for a devil in the wild is from five to eight years.
Tassie devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials, even though they are only about the size of small dog, and they’re not aggressive animals—unless food is involved. Devils are solitary creatures, but more than one might approach the same carcass (they are primarily scavengers), and the hideous shrieking, screaming, and snarling is how they establish dominance when feeding. The devil has sharp teeth and strong jaws and can deliver a tremendously powerful bite, so it’s not all sound and fury. You don’t want to come between a devil and his dinner.
Devils are muscular and quite powerful for their size. Among marsupials, they are odd for having front legs that are slightly longer than their back legs. Nocturnal hunters, these curious, high-energy animals will travel as much as 10 miles a night in search of food. Because they will eat anything, bones and all, no matter how rotten, they are great at keeping the countryside tidy.
As the name suggests, Tasmanian devils are found in Tasmania, but there was a time when they were abundant on the mainland. Scientists suggest that their extinction on the mainland was most likely caused by the introduction of dingoes, Asian dogs that were introduced by migrating Aboriginal people. Today, a new threat faces the devils. A highly contagious disease called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) has been spreading since the mid-1990s and has already killed thousands of Tasmanian devils. Animal health experts are working to isolate populations where the disease has not yet appeared, and captive breeding programs of healthy devils have been put in place in an attempt to save the species from extinction. Tasmanian devils have long been protected, but now, because of DFTD, the Australian government has listed them as endangered.
I had the pleasure of seeing the devils pictured below when I visited a wildlife park in Tasmania. Because they are nocturnal, one would not normally see them in daylight, and even more rarely see them in groups. The one that looks alert has just awakened from sleep because it caught the scent of an approaching pail of food. The others would soon join him. Fortunately, these captive populations are doing more than just amusing the tourists these days—they’re helping ensure the devils’ survival.