Tasmanian Devils Fight for Survival
January 1, 2013

I am not too proud to admit that Jupiter and I Iove to watch cartoons from time to time.  After alI, I owe it to Bugs Bunny and his friends for helping me “refine” my good sense of humor. Admittedly, I also credit those animators for handing me a few incorrect stereotypes. When most of us think of Tasmanian Devils, we picture “Taz” the whirling dervish of dust and trouble featured in some of our favorite Looney Tunes cartoons. But, with a little investigation, I have learned that the real Tasmanian Devils are facing great peril.

So, just where is Tasmania?! Tasmania is an island state of Australia located 150 miles south of mainland Australia. It is a naturally beautiful and isolated place, supporting some very unique species of plants and animals, like Tasmanian devils, many of whom live in the dry forests and coastal woodlands. The Tasmanian devil is the largest carnivorous (meat-eating) marsupial (mammals who carry their young in a pouch until they are mature). They are about the size of foxes, able to run fast for short spurts despite their stocky and muscular build. Possessing a large head and long tail, Tasmanian devils make quite the sight! The males are larger than the females, weighing about 18 pounds and measuring about 25 inches in body length with a 10-inch tail, which stores fat to help balance the animal’s body.

Tasmanian devils are mostly nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. Their coat is a beautiful black, sometimes with white patches, and they have long whiskers that help them feel around in the dark. They are said to travel great distances at night to find food—sometimes up to 10 miles in one night! They are mostly scavengers, eating any carcasses they can find, and locate prey using their keen senses of smell and hearing. With their incredibly strong teeth and jaws, as well as their non-retractable claws, they can clean most any carcass—bones included—as well as catch and hold almost any prey! During the day, they rest in caves and hollows. They are noisy little creatures, too, and make growling noises when searching for food and screams or screeching sounds when feasting in groups as a way to establish dominance. On top of all that, they are considered to be a bit grouchy with some temper issues—all reasons why they have earned the “devil” name.

Tasmanian devils mature at two years of age and have a natural life span of about five years. Like other marsupials, they keep their babies in their pouches. A month after breeding season, a mother will give birth to up to 50 tiny babies, with only enough nourishment to sustain up to four. She then keeps them in her pouch and hanging on to her for six more months until they are weaned and ready to be on their own.

The big threat for these uniquely cool animals has been a rare type of contagious cancer first discovered in the mid-1990s. Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) has killed tens of thousands of Tasmanian devils—over three-quarters of the wild population—resulting in Australia listing these animals as “vulnerable” to extinction. The disease, thought to spread from direct bites between devils, causes tumors to grow around the face and mouth, eventually preventing the devils from eating. Starvation and infections occur, and death results about five months after the first signs of the disease. It has been devastating, to say the least. But what has caused this disease? No one is sure.

Time is critical and there are many different studies taking place all around Tasmania. Biologists are studying different theories about the cause and nature of the disease including those related to genetics and immune system responses in different Tasmanian devil populations, as well as a theory that increased UV radiation—perhaps due to global warming—may be causing the disease. Scientists are making progress and there is hope. But can we find the cause and cure before it is too late for our little friends? Finding a cure for this disease can not only save a vital piece of this planet’s wildlife but also may give us clues to curing other cancers in animals and people.

Three Things You Can Do:

1.    Read! There are many books and websites dedicated to the plight of Tasmanian devils. Read and get up to speed! Share what you learn with others.

2.    Consider A Career in Research! The world needs dedicated people to go into science. There are countless types of research--anything from finding the causes and cures for cancer to studying the feeding habits of Tasmanian devils and other animals. If you think you have a calling to become a scientist, talk with family, teachers, and friends about what you need to study in and out of school to move forward in these most rewarding careers.

3.    Be Conscientious Consumers! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle---words to imprint in your mind. We all need to be mindful of what we can personally do to help reduce the effects of global warming.

For more information:

National Geographic Society

The New York Times

San Diego Zoo

Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park

Ted Talks