In the Wild

Devils are nocturnal and usually solitary. But that changes when food is around. Devils have an excellent sense of smell. They can smell carrion from 0.8 kilometers (about half a mile) away. Once they smell it, they can track it fast.

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

These Tasmanian devils “talk” over dinner.

Devils quickly create an order about who eats whatand when. They “growl-whine.” They “screech.” They “shriek.” Each sound means a different thing. A “discussion” about a dead wombat might begin with snorts and end with shrieks. Say, a number of devils all want to eat. They combine their sounds with biting. They use their jaws to snap at each other. And that’s where trouble began.

Trouble in Tasmania

In 1996, a photographer took a picture of some devils on the island. There were large growths on their faces. He had never seen anything like it. He shared it with some scientists he knew. By 2002, scientists learned it was a rare type of cancer. This cancer 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 will be sick with the cancer.

Scientists know that devils often bite each other fighting for food. This caused the disease to spread quickly.

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

a young Tasmanian devil

Why didn’t a devil’s body fight the cancer cells? It turns out that this type of cancer can “hide.” The devil’s body thinks the cancer is part of its body. So, its body doesn’t fight back. The cancer continues to grow. It may grow so large that the devil cannot eat. Then the devil will starve.

Devils were dying in great numbers. Scientists feared the devil would die out. But, that’s not what happened.

Progress With Protection

Wildlife officers removed healthy devils from the wild. They began a captive breeding program. Now, a healthy population would thrive.

Captive breeding programs made sure disease-free devils would live on.

This devil is released from a trap that helps scientists watch over its health.

Another step was to set up safe traps for catch and release to record the devils’ health. In the lab, scientists studied the disease. Could they find medicine to protect devils? Some devils are regaining their health. Their bodies may be adapting to fight the disease. Scientists are hopeful. The recovery of Tasmanian devils is important!