By Alexander Kabat
I am a postgraduate student (Ph.D.) working on heat production in the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), among other marsupials, at the University of Tasmania. I have been working with the Tasmanian devil for almost two years now.
The devil has been described as a fierce, bloodthirsty creature that stalks the night looking for food, fighting and crying with blood-chilling scream. Although made famous by Warner Brothers cartoons, compared to many of its fellow marsupials there is relatively little known about this animal. I must admit the idea working with a mysterious, fearsome, deadly creature of the night attracted me to the devil immediately. However, after almost two years of working with the devil and enjoying myself immensely, I could not have been more wrong about this animal. It is secretive and shy, but deadly and fearsome? I feel its reputation is very undeserving.
In the wild, these animals must compete for everything, including food, shelter, and mating, and these activities are usually accompanied with growls and the telltale devil's scream. My first close encounter with a devil (like most people) was in a wildlife park. It was feeding time, and the devils were hungry. The keeper was coming around with buckets of wallaby meat, and was piling it into the cage of two devils. The devils' screams could be heard across the park, their teeth bared and jaws snapping -- it looked likely that a fight would ensue. This continued until each devil had grabbed and consumed their fill.
Satiated, the devils started to jockey for position to bed down for the evening and sleep off their large meal. The yelling and snapping of teeth continued as the larger (presumably older) one claimed a soft-looking pile of straw for itself. The smaller devil, undaunted, continued with its onslaught of threats and positioned itself behind the larger. We expected the fight to begin, the larger devil having no choice if it wanted to remain in the soft, warm bed it had claimed. To our amazement, the smaller devil deftly moved in alongside the larger, but instead of dealing a deadly blow to its opponent, it curled up behind the larger devil, placed one arm over it and began to fall asleep. Only as sleep takes hold do the growls and screams come to an end. Instead of the expected battle, we were witness to an incredibly endearing picture of two Tasmanian devils "spooning" as they slept their dinner off. Over the last two years, I have seen wild devils that I have brought into the University do much the same thing.
The image that Warner Brothers has fostered -- a brown spinning ball of fur and teeth that can go through brick walls and will eat anything in its path -- still holds a special place in my heart, although it has no basis in the real Tasmanian devil. It is the mystery that surrounds the real devil that has allowed the Warner Brothers image to remain popular. The real Tasmanian devil is a shy animal that uses its black and white coloring to hide from view during the night, increasing the mystery surrounding this species. Most observations of the devil have occurred during feeding and they are most likely fighting over food, thus increasing the reputation of a cold-blooded killer. In fact, feeding is one of the few times that a devil must fight.
As for the sound they make, I can't help but think that no matter how blood-chilling and scary it is to us, it may be a beautiful sound to a devil. Who are we to judge? The closer I work with these animals, the more I realize that they are nothing like the reputation imposed on them.
The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
By Dr. Menna Jones :: Honorary Research Associate :: School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
The largest living marsupial carnivore, the Tasmanian devil is the size of a small, stoutly-built dog. Ideal for their role as Australia's only specialized mammalian scavenger, devils have a massive head with powerful jaws and strong teeth. Indeed, their scientific name means flesh (Sarco-) lover (-philus). Males at nine kg. (19.8 lbs.) are larger than females, which weight an average of seven kg. (15.4 lbs.); occasionally, males can reach a massive 12 kg (26.4 lbs.). Their jet black fur, unusual for marsupials, is usually marked with white on the chest and sometimes on the rump. While their black color, pink ears that flush purple when they are agitated, and their blood-curdling nocturnal screams probably earned them their common name, their true nature -- wary though somewhat belligerent -- belies their reputation.
Once occurring across the Australian mainland, devils disappeared after the arrival of the dingo. They are now restricted to Tasmania (Bass Strait prevented dingoes from getting here). Devils reach highest abundance in the dry eucalyptus forests and woodlands in northern Tasmania, but are found all over the island -state. Although populations have fluctuated this century, their status seems to be secure.
Devils emerge from their underground burrows after dark to hunt, moving a steady eight kilometers (4.8 miles) a night with a characteristic loping gait. They forage in dense vegetation, but use tracks for more direct travel. Capable of climbing trees, young devils particularly catch sleeping birds and eat possums. Most of the diet of adult devils, however, is made up of wallabies, pademelons and wombats, which are killed with a tenacious and powerful bite to the head or chest. With their supreme sense of smell, devils find and scavenge any dead animals, from beached fish to cows. As specialized scavengers, all parts of a carcass are consumed, except the largest bones. Large carcasses allow several devils to feed together, a noisy affair accompanied by much jostling and ritualized displays of mouthfuls of large teeth. Interactions with other devils are accompanied by a range of vocalizations, from soft barks and snorts to monotone growling, which escalates to screams.
While social interactions are frequent in feeding aggregations, devils are usually solitary. They use several dens in their home range, an area of eight to 20 square kilometers, which they share with other individuals. The sexes come together for a short but intense mating season in March, during which time they do not eat. Births occur three weeks later. Females carry up to four young in a backwards-facing pouch until August, when they are deposited in a grass-lined den. Young are weaned and independent by February.
The characteristic square footprints of the devil and grayish droppings containing fur and bones may be seen anywhere in the Tasmanian bush. There is a good chance of seeing the devils themselves by driving along quiet roads at night, especially in Mount William, Asbestos Range and Cradle Mountain National Parks.