Australia is famous for its marsupials—mammals that carry their undeveloped young in a pouch. The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is an example of a marsupial, and, like opossums or koalas, young devils ride on their mother when they are not in their den. Females can give birth to more than two dozen young—called imps or joeys—at a time, and the siblings must compete to feed on four milk-producing nipples in the mother’s pouch. Only a maximum of four imps will survive.

The Tasmanian devil was named by European settlers who found its aggressive behavior when threatened or competing for a mate or food alarming. They are known for behaviors such as baring their teeth, producing a loud and disturbing growling noise, and releasing a foul odor. It is the largest living carnivorous marsupial, and it is common for Tasmanian devils to feed on carrion in groups.

Thousands of years ago, the Tasmanian devil lived on the main Australian continent, but now it only inhabits Tasmania, an island off Australia’s southern coast (and one of Australia’s six states). It is not known exactly why Tasmanian devils became extinct from mainland Australia, but current scientific theories include climate change, human hunting practices, or predation from dingoes, a species of domestic dog returned to the wild more than 3,000 years ago by Asian seafaring people.

European settlers in Tasmania considered the devils a nuisance and greatly reduced their population through trapping and hunting. In fact, another marsupial—the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger—which was larger than the Tasmanian devil, was driven to extinction from hunting and other causes in the early 20th century.

Sadly, Tasmanian devils have been experiencing a major decline in the past few decades from a condition called devil facial tumor disease. This cancer produces tumors on their heads and bodies and in their mouths and, ultimately, the devils die from organ failure or starvation. This type of cancer is transmitted from one devil to another. Transmission of cancer is extremely rare in humans.

  1. On which continents can you find endemic marsupials?

    • Answer

      Marsupials are endemic—or native—to the continents of Australia (which includes Papua New Guinea), North America, and South America. Examples include the Tasmanian devil and the rock wallaby in Australia, the opossum in North America, and the monito del monte in South America. The majority of marsupial species are endemic to the Australian continent.

  2. Many animals have adaptations that help them ward off predators or competitors. What is an example of an anti-predator adaptation used by Tasmanian devils?

    • Answer

      Tasmanian devils produce a foul odor when under stress.  

  3. Tasmanian devils are facing a serious decline in Australia, and some researchers fear they may become extinct in the future. What can be done to help them survive and thrive?

    • Answer

      Devil facial tumor disease—a type of transmissible cancer—has been killing many Tasmanian devils in recent years. Finding a cure or treatment for this cancer would help ensure that Tasmanian devils have a secure future. Recent vaccines have shown promise, but more work needs to be done. Making sure they have enough habitat to live and reproduce is also essential.

cancer
Noun

growth of abnormal cells in the body.

carnivorous
Adjective

meat-eating.

carrion
Noun

flesh of a dead animal.

dingo
Noun

(Canis dingo) wild dog native to Australia.

endemic
Adjective

native to a specific geographic space.

Noun

process of complete disappearance of a species from Earth.

marsupial
Noun

mammal that carries its young in a pouch on the mother's body.

nuisance
Noun

an annoying or bothersome thing.

predation
Noun

behavior of one animal feeding on another.

transmission
Noun

broadcasting of electromagnetic signals, such as radio waves, from a transmitter to a receiver.