Monday, May 23, 2011

He Put the Taz in Taz-Mania

Image from Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service
Much like the Hyena and the Wolverine, the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) has a reputation. Once again, that reputation as a fierce predator and unscrupulous scavenger is not entirely unfounded. As the largest marsupial predator alive, the Tasmanian Devil will kill and eat most anything smaller than itself, and happily scavenge the remains of anything larger. The name “Devil" seems harsh for an animal the size of a lapdog, but when early settlers heard them fighting through the night, “Devil” came readily to mind.

Tasmanian Devils don’t typically hang out together except when a particularly large carcass has been found. Disagreements soon break out1 about who gets to eat first. However, like its Warner Brothers counterpart, the Tasmanian Devil is more loudmouth than fighter, especially to its own species2. There is a lot of growling, and baring teeth, and even some nipping, but physical fights are rare.

The home life of the Tasmanian Devil is nearly as dysfunctional (by human standards) as its table manners. When a female is ready to mate, she will visit a number of males to make sure she’s pregnant. She will give birth to about 30 raisin-sized babies, which is an issue, because she only has four teats. The newborns race to the pouch, and only the winners survive to weaning. In eight months, the young are ready to head out on their own.

Since European settlers arrived in Tasmania, the Devils have had a roller-coaster ride in terms of population. Initially they were killed for raiding chicken coops and the like. In the 1940s, they became protected by law. This increased their numbers enough that they were once again considered a pest species by the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, a new threat emerged: Devil Facial Tumor Disease. This is a contagious cancer that has once again reduced Tasmanian Devil population to a fraction of what it once was.

The Tasmanian government has lost no time in trying to protect these animals, including quickly having the Tasmanian Devil listed as endangered. Breeding programs, disease research, and awareness campaigns have popped up all over the island in an attempt to save this little loudmouth.

1 While the Tasmanian Devil in that video is eating, he sounds exactly like my cat.
2For your listening pleasure, please compare Mel Blanc’s interpretation with the real thing. I’m sure your co-workers won’t mind if you’re listening at work.