Thursday, July 3, 2008

Trip Highlight: Tasmanian Devils in the Wild

Tasmanian Devils are nothing like the cartoon character "Taz." They are amazing creatures, closer to canines than felines in shape and size and manner. They are scavengers but can also kill. They have incredible jaw strength, like hyenas, and they can crush and eat bone easily. They are communal feeders and help each other tear up and break apart kills into manageable, edible pieces by more or less playing tug of war with the carcass and pulling against each other until it tears. They have a really loud cry/call they make when feeding that sounds awful - sort of like a howl, a roar, a growl and a cry all in one. And it's loud. That noise attracts other devils, which helps with the whole community feeding thing.

Because devils compete for food, the devils in the wild often have bite marks on their faces. During mating, the female can be pretty rough on the male's face, and bites can be severe enough that a piece of lip, jaw, cheek or nose can be missing. Amazingly, the devils seem to keep on going without these either totally healing or getting infected.

Tasmanian devils used to live on mainland Australia, but got wiped out by the dingo, introduced by man. Now they live only on the island of Tasmania. And, they happen to be in a lot of trouble. An endangered species to begin with, devils have been suffering from a form of cancer known as Devil Facial Tumor Disease. You can research and learn a lot more about the disease easily, but the main thing is there is no cure, it is always fatal, and it has wiped out roughly half of the devil population to date. It's believed to be spread during communal feeding. The good news is that it hasn't spread to the whole island yet, captive breeding programs are underway, and some immunity in a few devils has been found. Additional bad news though: devils only live until 5 years old or so and don't breed until they are two. Although they give birth to many little rice grain sized babies, only four can attach to nipples and usually only two live. So these little guys are in trouble survival wise.

The little devils are very cute. We were lucky enough to get to see them in the wild, thanks to Geoff King. Mr. King had a family cattle ranch and he decided to turn his part back to nature and let the natural vegetation and wildlife return. He got some flak for this but stuck with it, and now he has a gorgeous piece of coastal heathland. On it live some devils. Once in awhile, not too often to alter the devil's ability to live in the wild unaided, he stakes out some roadkill and lets people like us sit with him and watch the devils come and consume it.

We saw a total of eight devils come to eat a dead wallaby. There were male and female, large and small. Some entered noisily and left hurriedly. One little girl entered with silence and was shared with without comment. Geoff (aka Joe) had seen some of the devils before, but not all. I was able to get some photos of the devils without disturbing them, and a few are here. You'll see later in the blog how these wild devils compare to those in captivity - the ones in captivity don't live alone as those in the wild do, and they don't bear the same facial scars.

When devils are raised in captivity they are affectionate and bond closely with their human. I was lucky enough to get to pet one and see her really up close. I liked how she had a little sneeze when she was happy and a little growly complaint when she wasn't, much like my Lizzie the Cat.

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