Tasmanian Devils

Back to Tasmania for another speciality of the region, the Tasmanian Devil. Like the thylacine, there used to be devils on the mainland but they are thought to have died out around 3,000 years ago, probably forced out by dingoes (which don’t exist on Tasmania). Happily unlike thylacines they’re well established, but since the mid-90s the incidence of devil facial tumour disease has grown hugely, and in 2008 they were declared endangered. Huge efforts are going into their conservation, including setting up a separate healthy population on Maria Island – the disease is one of only a few cancers that can be transferred so an isolated population may be a vital backup.

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Hopefully they’re going to be around for a while, so what are they like? They’re actually pretty cute (just look at that one above!), despite their fearsome reputation. They’re like small but very chunky dogs, and the young (which are delightfully called imps) are playful just like puppies. Their reputation probably comes from a few things:

The Looney Tunes cartoon – which obviously exaggerates more than a few of their features. Sad to say they don’t actually turn into a tornado when running from place to place, although I suspect they probably drool a bit. Smashing through huge boulders and large trees is also a little beyond their capabilities. The relationship between the two seems to have been a little fraught over the years, but generally seems to have worked out.

The noises they make are truly ghoulish. Imagine being an early settler, hugely isolated in a hut in the depths of Tasmania and hearing this kind of racket from your barn at night. When you investigate with a shaky candle you see a black thing that’s all teeth, munching flesh and bones and rushing around – it’s not hard to imagine why they were called devils. Tasmania Parks claims that Aboriginal peoples had a ‘more rational and normal relationship with the animal’ – they didn’t call them ‘devils’ – but if I’d been in that barn with a candle I think it would be a pretty rational conclusion.

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Their bite is also impressive, with possibly the highest pressure of any animal for their size – although if I had to I’d definitely rather take on a devil than a saltie which also tends to feature in these kind of lists. This is because they scavenge a lot of their food, and need very strong jaws to break bones etc – in many ways they’re like mini-hyaenas. But they’re a lot nicer than hyaenas – just look at this handsome fellow:

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Lastly a wildlife warning – all these pictures were taken of devils in captivity, either Taronga zoo or mostly Healesville wildlife sanctuary. We spent an all-too-brief week going around Tasmania and were certainly in devil country, but we never saw any in the wild, just lots of chubby wallabies. I reckon we might have heard a few at night though, down by Eaglehawk Neck. Hopefully next time we go we’ll see one in the wild!

See more Australian wildlife

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