Fun Facts About Tasmanian Devils

Tasmanian Devil
A Tasmanian devil seen snarling. The animals are in danger of dying off because of a deadly, transmissible cancer.
Credit: Tasmanian Devil image via Shutterstock

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class:  Mammalia

Order: Dasyuromorphia

Family: Dasyuridae

Genus: Sarcophilus

Species: Sarcophilus harrisii

Basic Tasmanian devil facts:

Tasmanian devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world. The animals are dog-sized, with a stocky and muscular build. They can reach 30 inches (76 centimeters) in length and weigh up to 26 pounds (12 kilograms).

They have black fur with white patches at the throat and rump. They are generally solitary creatures but sometimes come together to feed on a carcass. [Tasmanian Devil Pictures]

Unlike other members of their Australian marsupial family, they are active during the day, though they are nocturnal hunters.

The devils gained their name from European explorers who heard their loud screeching noise, and saw their ferocious behavior when eating or mating.

According to researchers, the Tasmanian devil's large head and neck allow it to generate one of the strongest bites per unit body mass of any land predator — 1,200 pounds (540 kg) per square inch — and their jaws are strong enough to gnaw through metal traps.

Despite its rotund appearance, the devil is capable of surprising feats of strength, climbing trees and swimming across rivers. Devils can't run at high speeds to chase down prey, but they are adept at distance sports: They can run about 15 mph (24 kph) for an hour straight.

Tasmanian devils eat meat from snakes, birds, fish and insects. Their prey can reach up to the size of small kangaroos.   They use their excellent sense of sight and smell to hunt prey. They aren't picky eaters and will consume all parts of an animal, from fur to bones and sometimes they dig up dead animals to eat their rotting bodies. Like other marsupials, their tails swell with stored fat.

Female devils give birth after about three weeks of pregnancy to 20 or 30 very tiny young, called joeys. These pea-sized pups crawl into their mom's pouch, but only a handful of them survive because she only has four nipples. After about four months in the pouch, the feisty devils come out, and are on their own by the time they are eight months old.

Devils live to about 7 to 8 years in the wild.

Tasmanian devil habitat:

At one time, devils were abundant across the continent of Australia, but now they only live on the island of Tasmania. Researchers think that their decline on Australia came at the same time that indigenous Australians and dingoes were spreading across the land, starting around 3,000 years ago.

Today, devils live all across Tasmania, though their numbers are the largest in coastal scrublands and forests. In the 1800s, farmers tried to eradicate the ferocious marsupials, because they thought the animals were hunting livestock and valuable fur stocks. They were trapped to the point of extinction, but are faring a little better today.

Conservation status: Endangered

Tasmanian devils have been protected since 1941, but their total population has decreased by more than 60 percent in the past decade.

Researchers say that most of this decline is due to devil facial tumor disease, an invariably fatal infectious cancer. The cancer causes large lumps to form around the devil's face and mouth, making it difficult for the animal to eat. The Australian government has listed the species as vulnerable because of the disease.

Road vehicles are also a threat, as devils are difficult to see on roads.

Odd facts about Tasmanian devils:

Devils are known to eat animal cadavers by first ripping out the digestive system, which is the softest part of the anatomy, and they often reside in the resulting cavity while they are eating.

Devils can eat about 5 to 10 percent of their body weight in a day, and probably more at a feast if they are really hungry. If the opportunity arises, they can eat up to 40 percent of their body weight in 30 minutes.

Tasmanian Devils have few natural predators, but smaller individuals may fall prey to eagles, owls and spotted tail quolls.

The ornery critters release a nasty odor when they're stressed.

The animal's mouth can open very wide to express fear and uncertainty. To challenge other devils to a fight, they use a sharp sneeze.

Because they store extra fat in their tails, unhealthy animals have limp, skinny tails.

Their name means "Harris's meat lover" after the scientist who described them.

Other resources:

Other marsupials: Koalas, Kangaroos

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