Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 60 – The Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian devil growling

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Most endangered species are beset by habitat destruction or hunting, or both.  Not these little chaps.  They are all falling fast because of a rare, and invariably fatal, form of cancer.

Originally thought to be caused by a virus, it is now recognised to be an extremely rare contagious cancer.  It is highly unpleasant and starts by attacking the facial features. Lesions appear which develop into tumours. As the tumours spread, the animal is eventually left unable to eat.  It grows weaker as starvation sets in.  Once the disease has taken hold, it takes about three to six months for the animal to die.  The disease is transmitted through biting and mating.

Although known as devils, they are far from it.  But, if you have ever heard their cries in the night or the wild noises they make when devouring their prey, you could forgive the early European settlers for living in fear of them, and naming them as such.  Although, it is hard to forgive them for mercilessly hunting and trapping them to almost the point of extinction.  Luckily for the devils, they became protected by law in 1941 and the species made a comeback.

The largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian devil is short and stocky, with a head that looks too large for its body.  The large head houses exceptionally powerful jaws, strong enough to crush bones and metal traps.  Research shows the Tasmanian devil’s large head and neck enable it to generate one of the strongest bites per unit body mass of any land predator.  Its forelegs are slightly longer than its hind legs, allowing it to reach speeds of up to eight miles per hour.  It has predominantly black fur with white markings on the chest and rump.  Some adults, though not many, do not have these markings.  They all have long whiskers for locating prey in the dark and for detecting the presence of other devils when feeding.  And, they all have long claws for digging dens and excavating food.  Males are usually larger than females and can weigh up to twenty-six pounds.  They can grow up to two feet six inches at the shoulder.  Their tails act as a counterbalance when they are running.  The tail is also where they store fat. A thin tail would indicate an unhealthy devil.

They are active during the day, and can sometimes be found basking in the warmth of the sun.  They are, however, nocturnal hunters. They can also climb trees and swim.  Although not the fleetest of runners, they have a great deal of stamina and can lumber along for up to an hour, non-stop.  When opening their jaws wide, they are often expressing fear. This could easily be misinterpreted as a sign of aggression. But, other devils certainly know better.  Instead of any growls or snarls, they have this peculiar habit of sneezing sharply when challenging one another to a fight.

The Tasmanian Devil is promiscuous and breeds once a year in March.  Gestation lasts twenty-one days.  After which, twenty or thirty tiny, tiny babies  (joeys)  will be born. Therein lies a problem.  Mothers only have four teats, so it gets quite competitive in the pouch, and, sadly, only a handful ever survive.  At about four months, infants will start to introduce themselves to the world.  At six months, they should be fully weaned.

All habitats.
Tasmania  –  Australia
What they eat
Carnivores and mainly scavengers, they will feed on whatever is available.   And, they eat every scrap  –  fur, bones and all.
Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is the main threat to Tasmanian devils.  Roadkills, dog kills and persecution also occur.
Status: Endangered
The Tasmanian devil is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species  as Endangered.   The population has been reduced by more than 80% since the 1990s. The sole reason for this decline is an invariably fatal infectious cancer, now known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).  Much is being done to overcome this horrific disease.  Research is currently being carried out to find a possible cure.  Pilot programmes have been initiated whereby zoos in America, San Diego Zoo Global and Albuquerque Biopark, and three zoos in New Zealand have been selected to receive Tasmanian devils in order to raise awareness of their plight.  And, following quarantine procedures, some are being placed in a captive breeding programmes to ensure the survival of the species.
More information can be found at Save the Tasmanian Devil 

“The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men”
Emile Zola

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 48 – The Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat

Northern hairy-nosed wombat

Source: Unknown

Who could possibly look at the face of this gentle, adorable creature without wanting to save it from extinction.  Thankfully, multitudes of caring, giving and conscientious people want to do just that.  But, a near-extinct wombat – who would have thought!

And, it is by no means delicate in build.  In fact, they are built like small tanks.  Which is probably what is so appealing about them.  They have broad heads, short, stocky legs and can measure over forty inches from nose to tail.  They only grow up to fourteen inches in height, but weigh in, on average, at seventy pounds.  These amazing little marsupials are solid.  On top of that, the females have an extra layer of fat making them even heavier. They have soft grey/brown fur on their bodies and all over their noses, hence the name, pointed ears and very short tails.  There are three species of wombat: the northern hairy-nosed wombat, the southern hairy-nosed wombat and the common wombat. The northern hairy-nosed wombat is the largest of all three.  Wombats are marsupials, meaning they carry and nurse their young in a pouch.

The northern hairy-nosed wombat is nocturnal.  Although usually solitary, wombats sometimes share burrows.  They have teeth which continue to grow all their lives, allowing them to continue to grind food when they are old.  They are extremely near-sighted, but have a highly developed sense of smell.  Known as the ‘engineers’ of the mammal world, they are capable of digging burrows up to 90 metres long. Each burrow has several entrances, is well-ventilated and maintains a constant temperature all year round.  Wombats cannot survive above ground for long periods, so their burrows are of the utmost importance to them.

Little is known about the mating habits of the species, but following a gestation period of roughly twenty-one days, most young will born in the summer (the wet season), between November and April.  Only one baby is ever born at a time. The baby (joey) will stay in the mother’s pouch until it is nine months old.  Interesting fact: all baby marsupials are called joeys.

It is said in many places, the northern hairy-nosed wombat is the rarest marsupial in the world.  I beg to differ here, I think Gilbert’s potoroo is.  But, I am sure this little wombat cannot be far behind.  Whatever the dubious honour, as with all endangered species, it would be a terrible shame to lose this beautiful, docile animal.

Semi-arid grasslands offering deep, sandy soil for excavating burrows.
Epping Forest National Park – central Queensland and St George in southern inland Queensland.
What they eat
Various coarse grasses, including African buffel grass, and roots.  African buffel grass, introduced and favoured by the cattle industry, has taken over the native grasses on which the wombat prefers to feed.
Pasture competition from cattle, prolonged drought, wildfire, disease (such as toxoplasmosis or mange) and dingoes. Due to small population numbers, and all animals originally being confined to the same location in central Queensland, the northern hairy-nosed wombat could have been extirpated by any of these threats, or any other unforeseen natural disasters.  It was a bit like the Board of Directors of a large company travelling on the same plane at the same time. But, all that has now started to change with the founding of a second site in southern Queensland (2009). This reserve has a predator proof fence surrounding it to keep out the dingoes as well. The same overall threats still exist, but now the future is looking better, and new babies are expected in mid 2014.
Status: Critically Endangered
The northern hairy-nosed wombat  (Lasiorhinus krefftii)   is listed on the  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species  as Critically Endangered. Through extreme vigilance, numbers have increased from thirty to forty individuals in the early 1980s to an estimated two hundred today.  People and organisations all over Australia, who clearly adore the wombat, are helping to protect and maintain the species.  “Re-wilding” has been introduced (re-introduction to old habitats) and scientists believe the northern hairy-nosed wombat may have a future. Let us hope they are right.

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty”
Albert Einstein

Children’s Book of the Week: Old Man Gapu’s Bark Painting by Kyle Maplesden

Mungai and the Goa Constrictor banner

It was the simple illustrations of Old Man Gapu’s Bark Painting which first caught my eye, especially the portrayal of the gathering round the camp fire at the ceremony. The well-chosen genre of naive art makes the perfect partner for a tale of primitive customs and legends. What could be better – in simplicity there is often perfection!  And, as you will see from my review below, I thought the story was pretty good too!

Old Man Gapu's Bark Painting by Kyle Maplesden - Book cover - Children's Book Review on Mungai and the Goa ConstrictorAbout the Book

In Northern Australia’s Top End, when Old Man Gapu needs to illustrate the important creation story he’ll be singing about at the upcoming ceremony he sets out to harvest some tree bark to paint on.  Follow Old Man Gapu as he journeys into the forest to collect the supplies needed to create his story-telling masterpiece!

About the Author

Kyle Maplesden grew up in Canada where his interest in the world’s indigenous peoples was sparked by childhood visits to First Nations Reservations in Ontario. An intensive, lifelong study into the art and culture of indigenous tribes ensued with a defined focus on Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. Read more… 

My Review of Old Man Gapu’s Bark Painting

The first of Kyle Maplesden’s books, Old Man Gapu’s Bark Painting, tells the short and enjoyable story of Old Man Gapu as he searches for bark in the forest to make a painting for a forthcoming ceremony.                                                                                                                 After despatching his friend Luku to seek the materials needed to make a didgeridoo, Old Man Gapu sets off to the forest to find a tree to cut bark from for his painting. He decides only the Stringybark tree will do, so he selects the right one and proceeds to cut the bark in a way handed down through the generations. He then prepares the bark for the paint. At this point we have already learnt about early instruments, location and traditions, and primitive bark painting techniques.                                                                              Bit by bit, we see Old Man Gapu complete his handsome painting and go on to the ceremony to sing the ancient Creator legend of Wititj, the Olive Python, with Luku accompanying him on the didgeridoo he has made.                                                                         Knowledgeably told with charming illustrations, Kyle Maplesden’s short, educational and entertaining tale will delight any child.

A Review of Old Man Gapu by Adam Bard

Kyle Maplesden’s children’s books Luku Makes a Didgeridoo and Old Man Gapu’s Bark Painting are beautifully illustrated educational stories told with a warmth and kindness that makes them accessible to all ages, as enjoyable for the parent to read as the child to follow. It was really only after finishing and thinking about the stories for this review that I realized we learn about the aboriginal culture in the best way possible, the way they themselves pass on learning generation to generation: though the pleasure of story telling. I hope these books reach the huge audience they deserve and that Kyle Maplesden has more stories for us from Luku, Old Man Gapu and many other characters we’ll come to know and love. Buy and enjoy.

Get Your Copy on Amazon         See More Books by Kyle Maplesden         Website

An illustration of Gapu painting his bark - from Old Man Gapu's Bark Painting - Children's Book Review on Mungai and the Goa Constrictor

Gapu starts to paint his bark for the ceremony

An illustration from Old Man Gapu sitting round the fire at the ceremony -Children's Book Review on Mungai and the Goa Constrictor

Gapu sings at the ceremony as Luku plays the didgeridoo