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Saving the Tasmanian Devil

Anish Chandy
Unique story of the Tasmanian Devil, which was once thought to be extinct. Now, it is again facing extinction because of a mystery disease.
The Tasmanian Devil or Sarcophilus harisii is a common marsupial found only in Tasmania. The world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, the devil, has a thick-set, squat build, with a relatively large, broad head, and a short, thick tail. The fur is mostly or wholly black, but white markings often occur on the rump and chest.
Adult males are usually larger than adult females. Large males weigh up to 12 kg, and stand about 30 cm high at the shoulder. It is nocturnal and was named by early European settlers because of its eerie growl, which starts as a kind of whistle and ends in a bark.
Devils have a body length of approximately 2 feet (60cm), and are known for their ferocity and foul tempers. Although only the size of a small dog, it can sound and look incredibly fierce. Longevity is up to 7 - 8 years. The devil is mainly a scavenger and feeds on whatever is available.
Powerful jaws and teeth enable it to completely devour its prey―bones, fur, and all. Wallabies, and various small mammals and birds, are eaten―either as carrion or prey. Reptiles, amphibians, insects, and even sea squirts have been found in the stomachs of wild devils.
Carcasses of sheep and cattle provide food in farming areas. These animals maintain bush and farm hygiene by cleaning up carcasses. This can help reduce the risk of blowfly strike to sheep by removing food for maggots.
Tasmanian Devils have some of the strongest jaws among any animal, and usually eat the entirety of their prey. A family of devils was caught on camera eating a horse, they left only the skull and tail. When feeding on road kill, they generally eat everything, including the bones, fur, and feet.
It is believed that they may be acting as a buffer to the establishment of foxes in Tasmania. They were originally considered pests by farmers, but are now appreciated for their ability in keeping down the numbers of crop-eaters, such as mice. They are rarely seen because of their nocturnal nature.
The famous gape or yawn of the devil looks threatening, but can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression. Devils produce a strong odor when under stress, but when calm and relaxed, they are not smelly. They make a variety of fierce noises, from harsh coughs and snarls to high-pitched screeches.
A sharp sneeze is used as a challenge to other devils, and frequently comes before a fight. For over a century, they were trapped and poisoned, and became very rare. They seemed like the Tasmanian tiger, to be headed for extinction. As a result, they were protected by law in June 1941.
Predators are large birds of prey like eagles. Very small devils run risks at night from large owls, like the masked owl, and large Australian Quolls like the spotted tail Quoll. Almost certainly, large devils will eat small devils if they are hungry enough. One reason that young devils can climb so well is possibly so that they can escape the large devils.
Today, these predators would seem harmless in comparison with the mystery disease called 'Devil Facial Tumor Disease' that is sweeping across Tasmania. Like many infectious diseases, it appears to be density-dependent. It kills nearly more than 90% of adults in high density areas, and 40 - 50% in medium-low density areas.
Thus, its overall impact is somewhat checkered across the landscape, but certainly a majority of devils are affected across the state. The disease, which doesn't seem to be affecting other species, is a cancer most likely caused by a virus.
It is thought that it may be a retro-virus, similar to retro-viruses found in other animals such as koalas, cats, and poultry. Adult males are the first affected, and then adult females. Once the symptoms are obvious, tumors spread throughout the body, and the infected devil dies within months.
This disease was first noticed in the mid-1990s, but has become more prevalent and has now been recorded through the east, northeast, southeast, midlands, and on the edges of the highlands of Tasmania. The Tasmanian government announced a funding package of more than $2.2 million to curb the disease, the fight to the finish has clearly begun.