8 Nov 2022


Did you know there could be Tasmanian devils or other threatened wildlife living near you? Discover what animals need stronger protection in your local area using WWF-Australia’s My Backyard tool, and find out how well they’re being cared for.

Say hello to the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial that resides on the island state of Tasmania. Despite their name, the Tasmanian devil was once abundant across mainland Australia. Now, they’re only found in Tasmania’s dry forests, where the vegetation is often composed of plants with hard, short and spiky leaves.

These small mammals don’t resemble the brown two-legged nemesis of Bugs Bunny at all, but rather they’re small, quadrupedal (meaning they use four limbs to move around) with black fur and white patches.

You may know them for their ferocious reputation, but there’s more to the Tasmanian devil than meets the eye.

1. They’re named for their ferocious appearance and behaviour.

The Pakana name for the Tassie devil is purinina and its ferocious looks and sounds are part of a Creation story told in Taraba: Tasmanian Aboriginal Stories. Therefore, it’s little wonder the Tasmanian devil got its common English name because of its angry appearance and fierce appetite!

Early non-Indigenous encounters with this expressive creature were marked by shock. Due to its angry appearance and tendency to snack on chickens, it was named the “Tasmanian Devil”.

Tasmanian devil eating (courtesy of Wikicommons)

2. They’re carnivorous, which is also good for the environment.

These small mammals are carnivorous, meaning they only eat meat, but they’re not picky eaters. While they do hunt small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects, they’re mostly scavengers, snacking on roadkill and other dead animals. Because of their size and nature they can compete with other predators for prey, and thus help reduce invasive predators, including feral cats and foxes.

3. Their babies are the size of a rice grain when born.

Tasmanian devils have a gestation period of about 21 days before giving birth to around 20-40 joeys. Each joey is the size of a rice grain, and the mother will carry them in her pouch for about four months. However, the Tasmanian devil only has four teats to raise her young, so it’s survival of the fittest in the race to the pouch. After four months, the mother devil will return to the den often to provide milk until the 10-month mark when they will start eating other food.

Tasmanian devil on tree branch

4. They’re marsupials.

Tasmanian devils are the largest surviving carnivorous mammal in Australia. Like the kangaroo, koala and greater glider, Tasmanian devils carry their young in pouches. But unlike the kangaroo, their pouches open at the bottom, keeping the dirt out as they travel.

5. They’re not dangerous.

Despite having a name like the Tasmanian devil, they’re not a threat to humans. They don’t go out of their way to attack or display aggressive behaviour unless they feel threatened, and in many situations, they would prefer to flee rather than fight.

Tasmanian devil in bushes

6. Tasmanian devils have faced many hardships and are listed as Endangered.

Tasmanian devil population suffered greatly during the 1940s. They were seen as a threat to livestock in Tasmania, and devils were hunted until 1941, when they became officially protected. But sadly, as they were persecuted to near extinction, the population has struggled to recover.

Since 2008, Tasmanian devils have been listed as Endangered to extinction. This is due to threats, including habitat destruction and infection from a contagious tumorous cancer. The tumours form in their mouths, preventing eating and thus eventually leading to starvation. Fortunately, scientists are working hard to find a cure for this disease, including looking at new ways to kill existing tumours and provide immune protection.

7. They have an extremely powerful bite.

When factoring in their size, Tasmanian devils are said to have the strongest bite force. This is largely due to the structure of their skull. Their jaws can extend to about 75-80 degrees to administer a very painful bite. They weigh in at around 9kg, but their bite force quotient is found to be the strongest in carnivorous mammals relative to their size. The Tasmanian devil’s strong bite actually aids them in eating, as it helps to crush their food (even bones!) into smaller pieces so that their stomach can digest their food.

8. They’re smelly.

Tasmanian devils have a scent gland that emits a very strong and unpleasant smell that they use to mark territory. It also makes them smell rather bad, with the pong being described as that of a wet dog but more intense.

Do you have a Tasmanian devil in your backyard? Find out using WWF’s My Backyard Tool and discover how you can help this animal survive and thrive in the wild again.