Australian Fauna

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Tasmanian Devil
Sarcophilus harrisii

Tasmanian devil

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), also referred to simply as ‘the devil,’ is a carnivorous marsupial now found in the wild only in Tasmania. The Tasmanian Devil is the only extant member of the genus Sarcophilus. The size of a small dog, but stocky and muscular, the Tasmanian Devil is now the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world (after the recent extinction of the Thylacine in 1936). It is characterised by its black fur, offensive odour when stressed, extremely loud and disturbing screech, and viciousness when feeding. It is known to both hunt prey and scavenge carrion and although it is usually solitary, it sometimes eats with other devils.

Devils and all the other carnivorous marsupials are experts at conserving energy. Devils can, instantly and at will cut their energy use in half. To do it, they go into torpor, a state that is similar to hibernation. Their body temperature drops from 100 degrees F to 88 degrees F, and their breathing rate and pulse are cut so drastically that devils in torpor lie in a death-like trance. But unlike a hibernating animal, devils can flip between activity and torpor and back again in a matter of seconds.

Most devils start breeding in their second year. Devils mate in March, the male devil carries the female around for 3 weeks for safety and she gives birth alone in April. When the babies are born they are as big as the top of a matchstick. Tasmanian devils have up to 20 babies but only four babies can live in the pouch, so at least 16 will not make it. Usually 2-4 babies are born the second time out of the pouch.

Only one out of ten Tasmanian devils will grow to adulthood.  Accidents and disease account for a few deaths, but the number-one killer of baby devils is other devils. Unlike most animals, these mean little marsupials fight to the death with their own kind. The winner then eats the loser.

When they leave the pouch, they are equipped with a full set of teeth. These are not temporary "baby teeth" but the 42 slashing, grinding, crushing weapons of an adult devil. The nestings have only a brief time to practice using these teeth. When they've been out of the pouch just three months, the mother devil stops feeding and guarding her young. Then they have to defend themselves, even against their own mother—she becomes an enemy, attacking and killing her own babies.

A cancer that has wiped out 70 per cent of wild Tasmanian devils became contagious by "switching off" certain genes that would otherwise enable the immune system to recognize it, a new study finds. Devil facial tumor disease is one of only two contagious cancers in the world (the other affects dogs and is nonfatal). It spreads when the devils bite or nip each other, transmitting cancerous cells that grow into enormous face tumors. The cancer either metastasizes to other organs or prevents them from eating or drinking. Either way, death usually occurs within six months. Experts predict the species could vanish within 20 years if the tumor disease isn't stopped. The immune system should catch these tumor cells, but the cancerous invasion causes no immune response in devils, said Hannah Siddle, a University of Cambridge immunology researcher. Siddle and her colleagues have now discovered why: The tumor cells lack surface molecules called major histocompatibility complex molecules. These MHC molecules allow the immune system to detect the invading cells. Without them, the cancer is essentially invisible. - See more.

Tasmanian devils are one of the most hated and feared animals in the world. Although a lot of terrifying stories have been told about how devils chase and kill humans, they are not true. These bumbling hunters look and sound a lot more fierce than they really are and the devils' bad reputation is largely undeserved. Tasmanian devils do have bad tempers—all Tassie devils are naturally ill-tempered and aggressive.

Size: Adult male: average height at shoulder 12 inches; average length of body, 2 feet plus a 1-foot tail. Weight range: 12-25 pounds. Adult females are about 15 per cent smaller than males.

Color: Black, usually with a white chest band and small white patches on the shoulders and above the tail. Occasionally albino (solid white) or all black.

Behavior: Nocturnal. Solitary. Savage.

Habitat/Range: The Tasmanian devil now lives only in Tasmania. It used to live on the mainland but became extinct there 600 years ago because of the dingos. The Tasmanian devil lives all over Tasmania except for a small corner of south-west Tasmania.  They live in areas where there is dense bush or scrub land and make their home in hollow logs and rocks.

Food: Primarily meat, including carrion. Their diet also includes insects, fruits, seeds, eggs, and garbage. They eat basically everything—bones, fur and everything else. They eat possums, small wallabies, kangaroos, reptiles, they steal eggs. This is good for the farmers because they clear up dead animals and stop disease from spreading.

Life Span: Six years in captivity. Unknown in the wild.

Gestation: Three weeks. Up to four young suckle in the pouch for fifteen weeks, then live in a nest and nurse another fifteen weeks.

Predators: Humans.

Population: Actual numbers unknown. Common in some areas.


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