In the Wild

Devils are nocturnal and usually solitary. 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 quickly establish an order about who eats what and when. They “growl-whine,” “screech,” “sneeze,” and “shriek.” Each sound means a different thing. A “discussion” about a dead wombat might start out with snorts and 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, 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 jaws to snap at each other. And this is where their trouble as a species began.

Trouble in Tasmania

In 1996, a photographer took a picture of some devils on the island. Their faces were distorted by large tumors. He’d never seen anything like it and shared it with some scientists he knew.

By 2002, scientists learned it was a type of cancer. Typically, cancer cannot be “caught.” The cells from one individual are different from another’s. Yet, what was attacking devils was one of very few cancers that can spread from one animal to another. It is called devil facial tumor disease. And it is fatal. Say, one devil has it and bites another. Both devils will die. Since devils often bite each other during their fights over food, the disease spread quickly.

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

a young Tasmanian devil

Why didn’t the devil’s body fight the cancer cells? It turns out that this type of cancer can “hide” from a devil’s defense system. The devil’s body thinks the 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. The cancer grows so large on the devil’s face, the devil can no longer eat.

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

Progress With Protection

Almost immediately, wildlife officers removed healthy devils from the wild. A captive breeding program began. This ensured that a healthy population of Tasmanian devils would thrive. Wildlife officers also set up safe traps for catch and release to record devils’ health.

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? Scientists are hopeful that they will. At the same time, they are seeing some cases of previously infected devils that are regaining their health. How? Perhaps, their bodies are beginning to adapt to fight the disease.

This is promising news. Tasmanian devils play a huge role as scavengers in their ecosystem. They are loved around the world. Their recovery is important!