Tasmanian Devil Facts

Scientific Name: Sarcophilus harrisii

Tasmanian Devil
Tasmanian Devil. CraigRJD / Getty Images

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. The animal's common name comes from its ferocious feeding behavior. Its scientific name means "Harris' flesh-lover" in honor of naturalist George Harris, who first described the devil in 1807.

Fast Facts: Tasmanian Devil

  • Scientific Name: Sarcophilus harrisii
  • Common Name: Tasmanian devil
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 22-26 inch body; 10 inch tail
  • Weight: 13-18 pounds
  • Life Span: 5 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Tasmania, Australia
  • Population: 10,000
  • Conservation Status: Endangered

Description

The Tasmanian devil resembles a dog-sized rat. It has a large head for its body, which allows it to exert the strongest bite for its size of any carnivorous mammal (strong enough to bite through steel wire). It stores fat in its non-prehensile tail, so a thick tail is a good indicator of the marsupial's health. Most devils have black fur with white patches, although 16% are completely black. Devils have excellent senses of hearing and smell, plus they use long whiskers to navigate in the dark. The animal's eyes can see moving objects, but probably don't focus clearly.

Diable de Tasmanie
Cécile Boucher / Getty Images

Mature males are larger than females. A male's head and body averages 25.7 inches long, with a 10-inch tail and a weight around 18 pounds. Females average 22 inches in length, plus a 9-inch tail, and a weight of 13 pounds.

Devils can hold food and other objects using four long forward-facing toes and one side-facing toe on each forefoot. There are four toes with non-retractable claws on each hindfoot.

Both male and female Tasmanian devils have a scent gland at the base of the tail used to mark the ground.

Habitat and Distribution

About 3,000 years ago, the Tasmanian devil disappeared from mainland Australia. Many researchers believe dingoes and human expansion may have eradicated the animal. Today, devils only live on the island of Tasmania, Australia. While the animals occupy all habitats, they prefer dry forests.

Diet and Behavior

The Tasmanian devil rests in a den or the bush during the day and hunts at night. While devils do not form packs, they are not entirely solitary and will share a range. Tasmanian devils can hunt any animal up to the size of a kangaroo, but they usually eat carrion or take smaller prey, such as wombats or frogs. They also eat vegetation and fruit.

Reproduction and Offspring

Devils reach sexual maturity and start to breed at two years of age. Mating typically occurs in March. While Tasmanian devils are not territorial in general, females claim and defend dens. Males fight for the right to mate a female and the winner ferociously guards his mate to drive away competition.

After a 21-day gestation, a female gives birth to 20-30 young, which are called joeys, pups, or imps. At birth, each joey only weighs from 0.0063 to 0.0085 ounces (size of a grain of rice). The blind, hairless young use their claws to move from the female's vagina to her pouch. However, she only has four nipples. Once a joey makes contact with a nipple, it expands and holds the joey inside the pouch. The joey remains attached for 100 days. It leaves the pouch 105 days after birth, looking like a tiny (7.1 ounce) copy of its parents. The young remain within their mother's den for another three months.

Tasmanian devils can live up to 7 years under ideal conditions, but their average life expectancy is closer to 5 years.

Young Tasmanian devils are small versions of their parents.
Young Tasmanian devils are small versions of their parents. aaron007 / Getty Images

Conservation Status

In 2008, the IUCN classified the Tasmanian devil's conservation status as endangered. The Tasmanian government has instituted protection programs for the animal, but its population continues to decline. The total population is estimated to be around 10,000 devils.

Threats

The principal threat to Tasmanian devil survival is devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), which is a contagious cancer devils transmit via bites. DFTD results in tumors that ultimately interfere with an animal's ability to eat, leading to death by starvation. Devils also die from cancer that may be related to high levels of flame retardant chemicals in the environment. Road mortality is another significant cause of devil death. Tasmanian devils scavenge roadkill at night and are difficult for motorists to see because of their dark coloring.

Tasmanian Devils and Humans

At one time, Tasmanian devils were hunted for food. While it is true devils will dig up and eat human and animal corpses, there is no evidence they attack people. While Tasmanian devils can be tamed, their strong odor makes them unsuitable as pets.

Tasmanian devils look and sound fierce, but they pose no direct threat to humans.
Tasmanian devils look and sound fierce, but they pose no direct threat to humans. CraigRJD / Getty Images

Sources

  • Brown, Oliver. "Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) extinction on the Australian mainland in the mid-Holocene: multicausality and ENSO intensification". Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology. 31: 49–57, 2006. doi:10.1080/03115510609506855
  • Groves, C.P. "Order Dasyuromorphia". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 28, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0.
  • Hawkins, C.E.; McCallum, H.; Mooney, N.; Jones, M.; Holdsworth, M. "Sarcophilus harrisii". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN. 2008: e.T40540A10331066. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T40540A10331066.en
  • Owen, D. and David Pemberton. Tasmanian Devil: A unique and threatened animal. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2005. ISBN 978-1-74114-368-3.
  • Siddle, Hannah V.; Kreiss, Alexandre; Eldridge, Mark D. B.; Noonan, Erin; Clarke, Candice J.; Pyecroft, Stephen; Woods, Gregory M.; Belov, Katherine. "Transmission of a fatal clonal tumor by biting occurs due to depleted MHC diversity in a threatened carnivorous marsupial". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104 (41): 16221–16226, 2007. doi:10.1073/pnas.0704580104