In the Wild

Devils are largely solitary animals, but that changes when food is involved. Devils have an excellent sense of smell. They can detect carrion from 0.8 kilometers (about half a mile) away. Once they smell it, they can track it fast. Devils have been “clocked” at 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) an hour for as far as one kilometer (0.6 miles). 

Things can get a little tricky once they find what they are smelling. Devils quickly establish an order about who eats what and when. Tasmanian devils have
11 distinct vocalizations, which include: “snort,” “humf-growl,” “bark,” “clap” (snapping of the jaws), “growl-whine,” “screech,” “sneeze,” and “shriek.”
Each sound means a different thing. A “conversation” over a dead wombat might start out with snorts and humf-growls. But, it can quickly become
full-on shrieking.

Tasmanian devils use their excellent sense of smell to avoid predators and locate prey and carrion.

These Tasmanian devils have a “discussion” over dinner.

At a carcass where a number of devils all want to eat, these sounds establish an order to the chaos. Devils combine their sounds with biting. They use their powerful jaws to snap at each other. And this is where the Tasmanian devil’s trouble as a species began. 

Trouble in Tasmania

As far back as 1996, a photographer took a picture of some devils on the northeastern end of the island. Their faces were distorted by large tumors. He’d never seen anything like it. He quickly shared it with some scientists he knew. They had never seen it before, either. 

By 2002, scientists were observing these tumors regularly. They began to study the tumors and discovered it was a type of cancer. Cancer cannot typically be “caught.” The cancer cells from one individual are not the same as they are in a different individual. Yet, scientists learned that what was attacking devils is one of only eight known cancers that can spread from one animal to another. It is called devil facial tumor disease. And it is fatal. If one devil has it and bites another, both devils will have the disease and both will die. Because devils often bite each other on the face during their fights over food, the disease began to spread quickly.

A cancer spreads between Tasmanian devils when sick animals bite healthy ones.

a young Tasmanian devil

What was going on? An infected devil’s body did not fight the cancer cells. It took scientists a long time to understand why. It turns out that this type of cancer can “hide” from a devil’s defense system. The devil’s body thinks the invading cancer is part of its body. So, its body doesn’t fight back. The cancer continues to grow. For an infected devil, this can lead to starvation because the cancer grows so large on the devil’s face, the devil can no longer eat. 

Devils were dying in great numbers. Many scientists feared the devil would become extinct. But, that’s not what happened.

Progress With Protection

Almost immediately, wildlife officers on Tasmania began forming what they called “an insurance population.” They removed healthy devils from the wild and began a captive breeding program. By doing so, they were ensuring that a large and healthy population of Tasmanian devils would continue to thrive.

Another ongoing step was to monitor wild devils. Wildlife officers set up safe traps for catch and release. They recorded the health of each devil before releasing it. They also monitored devils with remote sensor cameras.

Captive breeding programs ensured a population of disease-free devils.

This devil is released from a trap that helps scientists monitor devil health.

In the lab, they studied the disease itself. Could they create a vaccine to protect devils? This research is ongoing, but scientists are hopeful. At the same time, they are seeing some cases of previously infected devils that are regaining their health. How? The scientists suspect that the bodies of some devils are beginning to adapt to fight off the disease.  

Tasmanian devils are an important part of their ecosystem. Devils play a huge role as scavengers, but they also hunt introduced animals, such as feral foxes, cats, and ferrets, which hunt local wildlife. Tasmanian devils are a national icon to Australians and are much loved around the world. Their recovery is important!