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.
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.
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”