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Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii

[Frequently Asked Questions about the Tasmanian Devil [PDF 147KB]]


Tasmanian devil

The eerie call of the Tasmanian devil
is a sound you will never forget!

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) got its name from early European settlers who upon hearing mysterious unearthly screams, coughs and growls from the bush decided to investigate further. Finding the dog-like animal with red ears, wide jaws and big sharp teeth led them to call it "The Devil". 

However the famous gape or yawn of the Tasmanian devil that looks so threatening, can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression. Although they do have an impressive and frighting screech!

Take a listen to the vocalisation of the devil and you will see what we mean!

Aboriginal people also had several names for them, one of which is “purinina”.

Description

The world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, the devil has a thick-set, squat build, with a relatively large, broad head and short, thick tail. The fur is mostly or wholly black, but white markings often occur on the rump and chest. Body size also varies greatly, depending on the diet and habitat. Adult males are usually larger than adult females. Large males weigh up to 12 kg, and stand about 30 cm high at the shoulder. In the wild Tasmanian devils live up to six years.

History

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Devils once occurred on mainland Australia, with fossils having been found widely. But it is believed the devil became extinct on the mainland some 3,000 years ago - before European settlement. Devils probably became extinct there due to increasing aridity and the spread of the dingo, which was prevented by Bass Strait from entering Tasmania.

Today the devil is a Tasmanian icon but this hasn't always been the case. Tasmanian devils were considered a nuisance by early European settlers of Hobart Town, who complained of raids on poultry yards. In 1830 the Van Diemen's Land Co. introduced a bounty scheme to remove devils, as well as Tasmanian tigers and wild dogs, from their northwest properties: 2/6 (25 cents) for male devils and 3/6 (35 cents) for females.

For more than a century, devils were trapped and poisoned. They became very rare, seemingly headed for extinction. But the population gradually increased after they were protected by law in June 1941.During 1996 it became evident that Tasmanian devils were again under threat – this time from the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).

Tasmanian Devil (Photo by Steve Johnson)

Distribution

Anecdotal evidence suggests that devil numbers were quite variable over the past century, but were at historic highs about 10 years ago. They were particularly common in forest, woodland and agricultural areas of northern, eastern and central Tasmania.

These numbers have dropped since the 1996 identification of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) - a fatal condition in Tasmanian devils, characterised by cancers around the mouth and head.

There has been a 64 per cent decline in spotlighting sightings since the disease emerged. In the north-east of the State, where signs of the Tasmanian devil disease were first reported, there has been a 95 per cent decline (approximately) of average spotlighting sightings from 1993-95 to 2002-05.

Habitat

Despite the decline in numbers since the early 1990s, populations of Tasmanian devils remain widespread in Tasmania from the coast to the mountains. They live in coastal heath, open dry sclerophyll forest, and mixed sclerophyll-rainforest – Devils also take advantage of the interface between native habitat and agricultural paddocks, where their favourite prey species are often found.

Tasmanian devil pouch youngTasmanian devil with 3 month old pouch young (Photograph by Ingrid Albion)

Breeding

Devils usually mate between February and May, and after a gestation period of 21 days the young are born. More young are born than can be accommodated in the mother's pouch which has four teats.

Although four pouch young sometimes survive, the average number is two or three. Each young, firmly attached to a teat, is carried in the pouch for about four months. After this time, the young start venturing out of the pouch and are then left in a simple den - often a hollow log. Young are weaned at five or six months of age, and are thought to have left the mother and be living alone in the bush by late December. They probably start breeding at the end of their second year.

Diet

The Tasmanian devil is mainly a scavenger and a hunter feeding on whatever is available. Powerful jaws and teeth enable it to completely devour its prey - bones, fur and all. Native animals such as wallabies, possums and wombats are favourites and various small mammals and birds, are eaten - either as carrion or prey.

Reptiles, amphibians, insects and even sea squirts have been found in the stomachs of wild devils. Carcasses of sheep and cattle provide food in farming areas. Tasmanian devils maintain bush and farm hygiene by cleaning up carcasses. This can help reduce the risk of blowfly strike to sheep by removing food for maggots.

Behaviour

Devil at DarkTasmanian devils are nocturnal scavengers

 

The Tasmanian devil is nocturnal (active after dark. During the day it usually hides in a den, or dense bush. It roams considerable distances - up to 16 km - along well-defined trails in search of food. Devils usually amble slowly with a characteristic gait but can gallop quickly with both hind feet together. Young Tasmanian devils are more agile however and can climb trees. Although not territorial, Tasmanian devils have a home range, which can be very large if resources are scarce.

Tasmanian devils are also very good swimmers, however if they have young in the pouch they avoid swimming for more than very short distances. Tasmanian devils actually love water and will wade and splash about, even sitting or lying down in it to stay cool. They will often dabble in water with their front paws, somewhat in the manner of racoons. Tasmanian devils will sometimes store food in water and can even take a breath and “duck dive”.

The famous gape or yawn of the Tasmanian devil that looks so threatening, can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression. Tasmanian devils produce a strong odor when under stress, but when calm and relaxed they are not smelly. The Tasmanian devil makes a variety of fierce noises, from harsh coughs and snarls to high pitched screeches. A sharp sneeze is used as a challenge to other devils, and frequently comes before a fight. Many of these spectacular behaviours are bluff and part of a ritual to minimise harmful fighting when feeding communally at a large carcass.

Status

In May 2009, the Federal Government up-listed the Tasmanian devil to the 'endangered' category under the Commonwealth's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The Tasmanian devil's status was formally upgraded to 'endangered' under Tasmania's Threatened Species Protection Act 1995, in May 2008.

In late 2008, the Tasmanian devil was also up-listed to 'Endangered' on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) - widely considered the most authoritative system for classifying species in terms of their risk of extinction.

The Tasmanian devil is wholly protected.

Traditionally their numbers were controlled by food availability, competition with other devils and quolls, loss of habitat, persecution and vehicle strike. But the greatest recent threat to devils across Tasmania is the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). In September 2006, the Tasmanian devil disease was gazetted under the Animal Health Act as a List B notifiable disease. 

Contact

Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

Website – www.tassiedevil.com.au

Phone – 0497 DEVILS (0497 338 457)

Email – DevilEnquiries@dpipwe.tas.gov.au

Facebook - www.facebook.com/SavetheTasmanianDevilProgram