About Tasmanian devils
History | Description | Distribution | Habitat | Breeding | Diet | Behaviour | FAQs
Devils once occurred on mainland Australia, with fossils having been found widely. But it is believed the devil became extinct on the mainland some 400 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 it hasn’t always held this status. Tasmanian devils were considered a nuisance by early European settlers of Hobart Town, who complained of raids on poultry yards. In 1930 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 Devil Facial Tumour Disease.
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.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that devil numbers were quite variable over the past century, but were at historic highs in the early 1990s. 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 - a fatal condition in Tasmanian devils, characterised by cancers around the mouth and head.
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 - in fact, almost anywhere they can hide and find shelter by day, and find food at night.
Devils usually mate in March, and the young are born in April. Gestation is 21 days. More young are born than can be accommodated in the mother's backward-opening 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. Longevity is up to 7-8 years.
The Tasmanian devil is mainly a scavenger and feeds on whatever is available. Powerful jaws and teeth enable it to completely devour its prey - bones, fur and all. Wallabies, 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.
Tasmanian devils are famous for their rowdy communal feeding at carcasses - the noise and displays being used to establish dominance amongst the pack.
View a movie of devils feeding
Footage of these wild devils in their natural habitat courtesy of Anaspides Photography - Iain D. Williams
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. It usually ambles 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.
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 odour 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.
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 roadkills. 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.
A potential, unquantified threat is the introduction into Tasmania of the red fox which would compete directly with Tasmanian devil juveniles. Both species share preferences for den sites and habitat, and are of similar size.
Tasmanian devil FAQs
Find out all you ever wanted to know about Tasmanian devils, their lifestyle, hobbies and interests.
Tasmanian devil FAQs.pdf (88 kb)