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Cool Critter: Tasmanian Devil

August 25, 2008

Yes, yes, we all know “Taz” (short for the Tasmanian Devil), the lovably inept furry whirling dervish who’s been tormenting Bugs Bunny for years. Taz is known for his voracious appetite, his inability to distinguish a real lady devil from an inflatable one and his tolerance for surviving explosives. The real Tasmanian Devil is just as hungry, a whole lot smarter and probably less likely to survive exploding sandwiches. (This last point hasn’t been tested. Please don’t try this at home.)

Tasmanian Devils, known simply as devils, are the largest living carnivorous marsupial. (Marsupials—like kangaroos, wallabies and opossums—are mammals with pouches where offspring continue to develop.) They look a bit like ROUSes (rodents of unusual size)—short (about two feet tall) and stocky with a fat-storing tail that can be up to a foot long.

Like their cartoon cousin, devils eat pretty much anything and everything, whether they’ve killed it themselves or just happed upon it. They’ll eat birds, frogs, bugs, fish, wombats and even small sheep and wallabies. Whatever they eat, they eat it ALL—meat, fur, feathers, organs, bones and anything else that happens to be in, on or near their meal. Devils usually eat a perfectly respectable amount (about 15% of their body weight per day), but when the opportunity arises, they can gobble up 40% of their body weight in 30 minutes—that’s 7 pounds of food for an 18-pound male devil. (For comparison’s sake, that’s like a 200-pound human hoovering an 80-pound dinner. Please don’t try this at home either.)

Unlike Taz, who grunts and shouts gibberish, real devils have a very distinct—and very cute—method of communication. A sneeze means “I challenge you to a duel” and a yawn (when confronted by a predator or another devil) means, “I don’t care.” And when a devil is excited or feels threatened, its ears turn red.

They sound so cute and cuddly (like a classroom guinea pig), but they’re called “devils” for a reason. When they get pissed off they flip out—and give off a terrible stench. They bare their teeth, lunge, grunt, snarl, growl and let out a series of screeches that sound like they come from the depths of hell.

There’s something else that devils do that isn’t so cute: they bite each other when they mate. And while you may think that this is really none of your business, it is—scientists think this biting habit may be the cause of the rapid spread of DFTD (devil facial tumor disease). DFTD is a contagious disfiguring disease that causes tumors on a devil’s face and neck. The tumors grow rapidly, eventually making it impossible for the devil to eat.

Since the mid-1990s DFTD has killed thousands of devils and spread to populations throughout 60% of Tasmania. During that time the number of Tasmanian Devils declined from 150,000 to somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000. Because of this rapid decline, the Tasmanian government listed the devil as an endangered species this May.  

Tasmanian Devils are cool: They’re cute, they’re hungry, they’re pissy and they’re dealing with a bizarrely gross disease. But what really makes the Tasmanian Devil a cool critter is their recent surge in precocious sex. That’s right, kinky sex may have gotten the devils into this mess and teenage sex may just get them out of it.

Devils usually live five to six years and start mating at age two, but some females in populations with DFTD have started breeding before they’re a year old. Scientists think the disease has freed up food and decreased competition for mates, making it easier for the females to become teenage moms. Since most devils die from DFTD by the time they’re 2 ½ years old, teen pregnancy greatly increases the chances that a female’s offspring will survive.

So there you have it: a cute, pissy, hungry, kinky precocious devil. You’ll never look at Taz the same way again.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. KSA permalink
    August 26, 2008 3:47 pm

    Precocious sex and disfiguring disease – you really know how to hook your readers! Seriously, this was fascinating! :)

  2. August 19, 2009 9:47 am

    they also make some awefully scary sounds which is what gave them their name back when the first Europeans in Tassie heard them screeching in the wild nights…

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