They are reviled as ugly, disgusting, capable of making only the most hideous of sounds.
They are adorable and I love them.
I’m talking about the Tasmanian Devil, of course, one of the most maligned animals on the planet. I don’t know why I gravitate towards the lesser-loved and little-understood in the animal world* (the devils, Great White Sharks, bats…) but I’ve been a little obsessed with devils since I was a child. Getting to see them was one of the main reasons I headed to Tasmania after leaving Antarctica.
[*Actually, I do know why… just as many people rush to judgment about these generally solitary, “different” animals, many people judge me, usually getting it completely wrong. But that is for another post. Or, perhaps, a session with a therapist.]
I loved all of the wildlife I saw in Tasmania–from kangaroos to wallabies to wombats*–but the devils have a special place in my heart. They got their name from early European settlers who heard their distinctive growls in the bush in the thick of night. The legend quickly grew, turning them into hideous creatures that were blamed for killing livestock and causing general mayhem. Neither charge is true, by the way. Devils are almost entirely scavengers and couldn’t take down even a calf if they wanted to, and they’re shy, solitary creatures.
(*okay, it’s a lie that I loved all the wildlife. I’m still pissed at the obnoxious Currawong who flew off with my lunch, but that’s for another post.)
Tasmanian devils perform an important job in their last refuge (they once existed on the mainland of Australia but went extinct before Europeans arrived). Sometimes called the “garbagemen” of Tasmania, they will eat anything, and everything. And I mean everything. The Tasmanian devil has the strongest jaws of any known living animal with the exception of the Great White Shark. They use their amazing jaws, which can open nearly 90 degrees, to eat the fat, meat, bones and skin of an animal (and in that order, smartly starting with the most calorie-rich stuff first). Because Tasmania is also, unfortunately, the roadkill capital of the world, the devils’ scavenging helps to keep the roads, if not clear, than at least a little less messy.
As for the devils’ infamous sounds, I don’t think it’s any worse than the noise made by Chico, a family pet Chihuahua that was the crankiest dog I ever knew, and would steal my Grampa’s cigarettes, hide under the couch and eat the entire pack and then make rather devil-like noises at anyone that came near.
While I got to hear a lot of devilry, they had a habit of knowing when the camera was on and shutting up… So here’s the best of the video I shot that captured their sounds (this was from the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park on the Tasman Peninsula):
Here are the same two devils moments later chasing one another. How can you not love them?
As mentioned above, devils generally only get noisy when they feel threatened. They’re fairly little guys, about the size of a Boston Terrier, they’re shy, one could argue they’re asocial (they live alone, not in packs or even pairs), and really the only time they get together is when they smell something munchable and crunchable.
As they converge on carrion, the only way they have to communicate with each other is making those sounds, opening their jaws and occasionally taking a bite.
I shot this video at Trowunna Wildlife Park during feeding time… see what happens when someone shows up late for dinner:
Here’s a video of a few of the devils at Devils@Cradle during feeding time… nom nom nom:
Devils also bite each other around the mouth and genitals during mating. Hey, if it’s between two consenting adults, I don’t judge.
But Tasmanian devils are not always ferocious. Here’s a mom with her babies just chillin’:
The more time I spent observing devils (and believe me, I spent a lot of time), the more I thought of them as the lapdogs of Mordor, with their little orc ears and their tiny eyes and their black fur and long canines and Nazgul-like noises. Sigh.
The more time I spent around them, the more I also really wanted one for a pet.
A couple random facts I learned about devils: they can smell blood from two kilometers away; they can be outrun by a chicken, and those Mordorable orc ears get redder and redder as they get more excited.
It’s a good thing devils can smell blood from rather a long way away, since their eyesight is horrible. They can’t see clearly more than a foot or so in front of them. They need spectacles… OMG can you imagine how much evencuter they would be with spectacles!
Devils are the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, a claim they landed in 1936 with the death of the last known Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a fascinating, beautiful and unique animal that humans wiped off the face of the earth in little more than a century.
Nice going, humans. Jerks.
You may have noticed in the captions that the photos and videos were shot at sanctuaries and conservation parks. That’s pretty much the only place to see devils these days. They’re still in the wild, sure, but being shy and nocturnal they’re not often seen.
And now the sad part of the story. The other reason you don’t tend to see devils outside of sanctuaries and such is because their numbers have been reduced up to 90% throughout much of their territory. Many of the people I met trying to help the devils survive believe they will be extinct in the wild within the next decade.
Blame it all on DFTD.
Devil Facial Tumor Disease showed up in the 90s in one of the most densely devil-populated areas of Tasmania. Initially a mystery, the disease has since been determined to be a contagious cancer. There are only a couple known contagious cancers in the world, and for that we should all be thankful–because imagine if cancer spread like the common cold.
Anyway, the reason DFTD is particularly devastating to devils has to do with their lack of genetic diversity. Living on an island for thousands of years doesn’t do much for your genome. Devils have incredibly little variation in their genes. The tumors are mostly around the mouth and genitals. And they bite when mating or, on occasion, when arguing over dinner.
Here’s what happens, at least as I understood it from various sanctuary staff members who patiently answered my pesky questions. A devil with a tumor gets bitten by another devil. In the process of biting, some of the cancerous tissue gets on the biter. Devils are so close to each other genetically that the biter’s immune system does not reject the cancerous tissue as foreign, mistaking it instead for part of the biter. Unimpeded, the cancer then infiltrates the biter.
I won’t show you the utterly heartbreaking photos of what happens next, but DFTD has a 100% mortality rate. The cancerous tumors grow in size and number and, since the tumors are mostly around the mouth, soon the devil can’t eat. It starves to death.
There is no known cure for DFTD, and no way to isolate populations. Although it’s taken the disease time to spread across mountains, narrow isthmuses and other natural barriers, the dense rainforest of Tasmania and the devils’ own stealthy, nocturnal nature make it impossible to track and prevent one infected animal from getting into the territory of a disease-free population.
There is hope, however. Scientists found that one of the devil’s genes flipped somewhere along their inbred evolution. The gene affects immunosupression, and is believed to be one reason foreign cancerous cells are not rejected by the body of the healthy devil they invade. Occasionally, some devils show up with the C5 gene not inverted–and these devils also appear to be immune to DFTD.
Now, devils are caught, quarantined and tested for the C5 gene, then bred with other healthy devils in an attempt to increase both genetic diversity and the prevalence of the right-way-up C5, as well as to create a large reservoir population in case the wild population does go extinct.
And there are more encouraging signs in the wild itself. Preliminary evidence suggests that infection rates may have bottomed out, and that the devils in highly decimated areas who have survived may have the C5 gene, or some other natural immunity, are now mating with each other and passing the immunity on to their offspring.
I hope so. I can’t think of any animal that deserves to slowly starve to death, especially not one as Mordorable as the devil.
I visited four different Devil parks during my time in Tasmania. Each one had its own character, but each one was also amazing. And at each park I met men and women who love the devil as much as I do–arguably even more, since they’re willing to stop and drag roadkill into their cars whenever they see a potential devil meal. Here’s a quick recap of where I went and what I thought of each place:
Devils@Cradle: one of the newer places, near Cradle Mountain, allegedly Tasmania’s most beautiful national park (meh… I was more impressed with the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, which you’ll see, eventually, in a future post). The focus here really is on devils, though they also have a few of the devils’ nearest living relative, the enchanting quoll.
Okay, I’m not going to lie. I want a quoll for a pet, too, even though I know owning exotic animals is wrong and I’d never do it. I still want one.
As Devils@Cradle was my first devil experience, it was extremely exciting. The guide, a wildlife biologist who looked disconcertingly like Rob Thomas of matchboxtwenty, was a little, ah, devilish (when I asked if I had time to run to the bathroom before the presentation started, he muttered “I’m starting in five minutes whether there’s anyone there or not.” I can’t blame him. If you spent your day evenly divided between screechy devils and annoying tourists who point out that you look like Rob Thomas, you’d probably be irritable, too).
Anyway, Rob Thomas knew his stuff, that’s for sure, and cleared up a lot of misconceptions I’d had from reading general science stories on DFTD.
One of the highlights of the whole experience was getting to pet a devil, albeit briefly (they don’t really like it and we each got one stroke in before Rob Thomas put him back down). Impression: like a Jack Russell terrier.
Trowunna Wildlife Park: Located relatively close to Devils@Cradle (and even closer to the Walls of Jerusalem, which I totally need to post about), Trowunna had a wide range of wildlife, including mobs and mobs of kangaroos free-ranging about. I’ll post more on the roos and wombats and other residents soon. But devil-wise, they had a wonderful range of them, including babies!
We even got to pet, gently, one at a time and only one or two strokes, the babies. They started making a sneezing noise, however, a sign of stress, so he put them back to bed before they got seriously annoyed.
One of the special things about Trowunna is that it’s the first place that’s been able to breed devils with the C5 gene in its DFTD-immune form. All of the parks I visited, by the way, as well as several others, work together on breeding healthy devils through swapping and borrowing and generally setting any competition aside in the interest of saving these amazing little animals.
Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park: Located near the Port Arthur Historic Site on the Tasman Peninsula (and man, do I have a giant post about Port Arthur in the wings…), this park has tons of kangaroos and also a lot of birds, many of which were crippled by motor vehicles or yahoos with guns.
It’s on the Tasman Peninsula in the southeast of Tasmania, an easy day trip from the capital of Hobart (Devils@Cradle and Trowunna are more remote, but accessible within a day’s drive of Launceston in the north of the island). I loved the passion of the guy who did the raptor show (there’ll be a post about that, too) and the devil feedings.
And they also had a really good gift shop.
One thing the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park had that moved me, and that I saw nowhere else, was a cemetery for its residents, from kangaroos to devils.
Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary: I visited here on my last day in Tasmania. I almost skipped it, since it’s small and right outside Hobart and I worried it might be touristy. Wow, I’m glad I went. Sure, it seemed a little cozier than the other places, but they’re in the middle of expanding and adding huge new enclosures not only for the devils, but for many other residents, including Mary, a blind wallaby. She has a special enclosure with fewer obstacles so she can move around easier.
Bonorong, perhaps because it is located in Tasmania’s most populous area, the greater Hobart metropolis (such as it is), also is very active in rescuing animals injured or orphaned by motor vehicles. They have a 24-hour volunteer response service, and it made me happy to know that animals like Mary can find a comfortable forever home here.
If you’re planning on traveling to Tasmania, you must see the devils. I would, quite frankly, urge you to visit all four parks above (and there are others, too, though I can’t comment on them since I didn’t visit). Sure, none of them are free, but all of them are working hard to save the devils, and the cost of visiting all four is less than one stupid bungy-jump, or a ticket on either of the tourist trips I took to Bruny Island and the Gordon River (oh yeah, there are posts on both of those places coming, too).
So give the devil his due.