Name(s): Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
Size: Males: 8-14kg Females: 5-9kg
Diet: Carnivorous scavenger
Habitat: Found in most habitats in Tasmania
Conservation status: Endangered
Superpower: An incredibly effective immune system allows the Tasmanian devil to heal naturally from some truly horrific wounds
When you think of Tasmanian devils, odds are you think of big teeth, strong jaws, and loud unearthly screeches – a strange creature with a pouch and a terrifying reputation for tearing flesh and consuming dead animals whole. What if I told you that the behaviour of devils when trapped and handled by biologists was nothing like what their reputation suggests?
Tasmanian devils have large home ranges, often overlapping with several other devils. While mostly solitary, they do communicate with each other by depositing their scat (poop) in specific locations called latrines. This allows other devils to know who has been in the area and when.
Physical contact between devils is only likely to occur during mating or when there is a large dead animal, like a cow, that draws all the local devils to one place. Behaviour between devils during mating can be quite violent, whilst behaviour at a communal feeding area is often more like posturing to enforce a hierarchy of who feeds first.
However, biologists studying Tasmanian devils have rarely witness these behaviours when trapping and handling wild devils. Because devils are mostly nocturnal, they are often asleep when you arrive at the trap during the day and still a little sleepy when you open the door.
Once deposited into a hessian sack for processing, devils tend to sit very still and let you do anything with them, including opening their mouth to check for devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) – all while wide awake and not anaesthetised! Every single person who has witnessed this incredibly calm, still behaviour from wild devils has been astounded at how easy they are to handle, how relaxed they appear lying on the biologists’ lap, and how biologists still have all their fingers after opening the devil’s mouth wide like a dentist!
Clearly the experience is not too distressing, as many devils come back to visit a trap repeatedly. In some instances, a devil may visit a trap every day that the biologists are working in the area. But their behaviour remains the same, and it is not uncommon to have a devil fall asleep while lying on your lap.
This lack of aggression towards people also extends to other species, especially those not considered prey for a devil. Devils have been captured on camera feeding on a carcass while a feral cat rolls around on the ground next to it. Calls received from the public about interactions between devils and domestic dogs always start with “I think my dog has killed a devil” and never the other way around. In fact, after DFTD and cars, dog attack is likely one of the biggest threats for devils.
So, while their chilling screams and gnashing teeth are likely telling you that there is more than one Tasmanian devil in the area, the experiences of wildlife biologists tell of an endearing creature that is a pleasure to work with, and one who is more likely to fart on you than bite you!
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Sam is a wildlife biologist working for the Tasmanian Government on the Conservation and Management of Tasmanian devils. She has worked on a number of endangered species including Gouldian finches, Spectacled flying foxes and, for the past 14 years, Tasmanian devils.
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