Australasia, Nature

Sympathy for the devil

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It is fierce, noisy and eats almost everything in sight, but now the Tasmanian devil is facing its biggest threat in 70 years.

 

Mention ‘Tasmanian devil’ to someone and chances are they’ll think of Taz, the dribbling Looney Tunes character chasing rabbits and ducks with a boundless appetite. Taz is strong and determined, spinning through trees, rocks and slurping lakes dry through a straw. But he’s also woefully stupid; naïve, temperamental and comically impatient.

The real-life inspiration behind Taz is less known. In the forests of Tasmania, an archipelago of some 300 islands 240 kilometres south-east of mainland Australia, the genuine Tasmanian devil roams. There are between 10,000 and 50,000. Funnily enough, the devil shares many traits with Taz. It is a ferocious and notoriously aggressive hunter. Despite cutting the figure of a small bear – it can become 80cm long and weigh 12kg – it eats everything from insects and amphibians to dead cows. Its jaws are extremely strong. Delicatessens include wallabies, birds, small mammals, reptiles, sea squirts, dead sheep…

Actually, it’s easier to list what it doesn’t eat.

“They can’t break the femur of a wombat, don’t eat the pelvis and struggle with a wombat skin,” says David Pemberton, a biologist in Tasmania and co-author of Tasmanian Devil: A Unique And Threatened Animal.They chew the nasal bones of a wallaby but don’t bother with the sagittal crest of a kangaroo. They like to eat fresh meat, but can subsist on a carcass until they can kill again. Often when people say they have eaten echidna [quills] it’s actually the quill of bird feathers. They love eating birds.”

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Tasmania is a good hunting ground for the devils. The forests are rich and tropical, like the Amazon. The mountains are raw and the lakes clear, like in the Canadian wilderness. Almost a fifth of the island is protected World Heritage Area. Only 500,000 live here, half of them in Hobart, the Australian state island’s capital. Due to its remoteness, Tasmania houses many species that are extinct at mainland Australia – the Tasmanian devil included. Some have been wiped out, like the Tasmanian tiger. For others, Tasmania is a last chance saloon.

In Australia, the devil became extinct some 400 years ago. Today it is the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial (the category of mammals such as the kangaroo and the koala). It went close to extinction 70 years ago, when, in search for food, it raided the poultry areas of European settlers. Angrily, they named it ‘the devil’. The raids prompted an eradication scheme in 1930 that saw devils trapped and poisoned for more than a decade. Only law protection in 1941 saved it from a certain wipeout.

Since then, its hunting skills have kept it afloat. It can travel 10-20 kilometres a night in search for food. It swims. Like many animals in Tasmania, it is nocturnal, hunting only at night. When nothing can be captured alive, it settles for roadkill and wounded animals. Devils often feed in groups; a rowdy affair, with lots of aggression and loud sneezy noises. This, experts say, is a ritual bluff to sort the pecking order. The devil can eat 40 per cent of its body weight in 30 minutes. But with a need of consuming 15 per cent per day, a large feast only fills the tank for two or three days.

The devil’s disproportionally large head helps it chew through almost anything. That combined with its size and longevity – up to seven years, though more commonly five – is crucial. “They are just the right body size to wean their young in less than 12 months,” says Pemberton. “They can wean four young ones, so in fact they have evolved a life history strategy that is rat-like. Because of a high productivity coupled with an ability to hunt, scavenge and consume much of a carcass, they can exploit many resources. Therefore, as a species, they can flourish where it is cool and there aren’t competitors – like in Tasmania. If they were bigger they would be extinct.”

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But its survival instinct may no longer be enough. A rare cancer – Devil Facial Tumour Disease – has spread on the island, giving devils visible, ugly facial marks. It spreads through biting. The infected die within three months. Since its discovery in 1996, the devil population has declined dramatically, and the Australian environmental department has listed it as ‘endangered’. “The disease has reduced populations to the point where they are susceptible to other threats such as fire, and unsustainable population numbers,” says Dr Howel Williams, director of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP).

The consequences of extinction would be grave, not just for Tasmania’s economy and tourism sector, but for the ecology too. “With devil numbers declining, this opens up opportunities for the populations of exotics such as feral cats and foxes to build up,” says Williams. “These species – and particularly foxes – will have a devastating impact on our biodiversity.”

The government is acting to preserve the species. In November, a group of 15 devils were transferred to Maria Island, a small island north-east of Tasmania, to start a life free of the tumour. “We are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to protecting the Tasmanian devil,” said Tony Burke, the federal environment minister. “This is part of making sure the Tasmanian devil never goes the way of the Tasmanian tiger.” About 50 devils are reportedly planned to follow over the next two years. The disease is taking its toll, but the devil won’t go without a fight.

To support the devil, visit the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.

Photos: Cloudia Newland, Kwest, Ewan Chesser [all via Shutterstock.com].

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