9 Enlightening Facts About Tasmanian Devils

You may think you know these unique marsupials, but the devil is in the details.

A brown Tasmanian devil with a patch of white on its chest stands on a mossy surface

Mathias Appel / Flickr/ Public Domain 

Tasmanian devils are widely known, but not widely understood. Their most famous emissary is Taz, the spinning Looney Tunes character who bears only a remote resemblance to actual Tasmanian devils.

Yet the real animals deserve more attention and appreciation, both because they're fascinating and because they're in trouble. There is a lot to love about these unique marsupials and, as you might expect, the devil is in the details. So here are a few lesser-known facts about this unusual creature.

1. Tasmanian Devils Once Lived on the Australian Mainland

jawbones of Tasmanian devil
A Tasmanian devil fossil from Imperial Cave in New South Wales, Australia.

Toby Hudson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Tasmanian devils used to be Australian devils, too, but the fossil record suggests they vanished from mainland Australia thousands of years ago. Although some studies have argued they still inhabited Australia within the last 500 years, the most widely accepted date of their extirpation is now roughly 3,000 years ago.

Dingoes arrived in Australia around 3,500 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating of fossils, and their arrival may have have played a role in the elimination of Tasmanian devils, possibly along with pressure from humans and climate changes related to the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Dingoes are not present in Tasmania, however, and that is now the final refuge of the marsupials known as Tasmanian devils.

2. They Store Fat in Their Tails

Tasmanian devil tail
A fat tail is an indication of good health in Tasmanian devils.

ozflash / Getty Images 

Like other marsupials, Tasmanian devils store fat in their tails. This gives them a source of sustenance upon which to draw when food becomes scarce, according to the Tasmanian government's Wildlife Management Branch. If you see a Tasmanian devil with an especially plump tail, it's a good indication the animal is doing relatively well.

3. They're the Largest Carnivorous Marsupials in the World

Tasmanian devil
Now that the thylacine is extinct, Tasmanian devils are the largest remaining carnivorous marsupial.

Mathias Appel / Flickr / Public Domain

Tasmanian devils are about the size of small dogs. They stand roughly 12 inches (30 cm) tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 30 pounds (14 kg), with a stocky frame and a large head. They long held the title as the world's second-largest carnivorous marsupial, but in 1936 they rose in rank to No.1.

That's because 1936 was when the last thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, died out. Despite rumors of thylacine sightings in recent years, this marsupial is widely believed to have vanished forever when the last one in captivity, named Benjamin, died at Hobart's Beaumaris Zoo on September 7, 1936. In the absence of thylacines, the Tasmanian tiger is now the largest carnivorous marsupial left on Earth.

4. They Have One of the Strongest Bites of Any Living Mammal

Tasmanian devil yawning
Tasmanian devils have incredibly powerful jaws to help them crush bone.

ozflash / Getty Images

Tasmanian devils are carnivores, which means they only eat meat, but they are not particularly picky about where that meat comes from. They often act primarily as scavengers, and are known to feast on dead animals and partially rotten meat, but they do also hunt, typically smaller prey such as lizards, frogs, and insects.

They tend to be solitary animals, but often gather in groups to eat, sometimes joining in a tug-of-war that can help everyone by pulling the food apart into smaller pieces. It also helps that they have very powerful jaws — according to at least one study, Tasmanian devils have the highest bite force of any living mammalian carnivore. This allows them to eat every bit of a meal, including the bones.

5. They Can Eat Up to 40% of Their Body Weight in a Day

An adult Tasmanian devil who weighs 22 pounds (10 kg) will typically eat about 2 pounds (1 kg) per day, although this can vary widely depending on circumstances. When food is scarce, a Tasmanian devil can reportedly eat up to 40% of its own body weight in one sitting, allowing it to buffer itself against the uncertainty of when its next meal will be.

6. Newborns Are Incredibly Small

Tasmanian devil joey
As with other marsupials, a baby Tasmanian devil is known as a joey.

Devil Ark / GWC / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A Tasmanian devil mother is pregnant for about three weeks, after which she can give birth to as many as 40 tiny babies. As with other marsupials, babies are known as joeys, although they are also sometimes called imps. Newborns can be as small as a grain of rice. They are born into a harsh world—their mother only has four teats in her pouch, meaning only the first four to find them will survive.

The mother carries these joeys in her pouch for four months. They live in a small den after moving out of her pouch and are weaned at roughly 10 months old. They reach maturity at 2 years of age and may live for several more years as adults.

7. They Aren't Dangerous to People

Despite their intimidating name, powerful jaws, and feisty personalities, Tasmanian devils do not pose a significant danger to people. They do not attack humans, and contrary to a historical misconception, they are not known to attack large livestock like sheep or cattle, either. (They may take on sick or injured sheep, however, as well as smaller farm animals like chickens or ducks roosting on the ground.)

8. They Are "Natural Vacuum Cleaners"

Tasmanian devil with nose up, smelling
Tasmanian devils can sniff out carrion from as far as 1 km away.

ozflash / Getty Images

In fact, Tasmanian devils are beneficial members of the ecosystem in their native habitat. Thanks to their penchant for preying on sick animals and eating carrion, they are like "natural vacuum cleaners," as the Tasmanian Wildlife Management Branch puts it. Removing sick animals can help prevent those animals from infecting other members of their species, while feasting on carrion helps reduce the prevalence of maggots that can lead to diseases like fly strike in sheep.

Devils can also protect their fellow native fauna by preying on feral cats, which are a menace to many native birds in Tasmania, and by controlling other invasive species such as red foxes. On top of all that, they also have a cultural cachet, serving as icons of their namesake island and helping draw tourists who support the Tasmanian economy.

9. They Are Endangered

A wild Tasmanian devil at Maria Island, Tasmania
A wild Tasmanian devil at Maria Island, Tasmania. Posnov/Getty Images 

Tasmanian devils are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The main threat facing the species is a rare form of cancer called Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), which is spread among devils when they bite each other while fighting or mating. First discovered in the mid-1990s, DFTD causes large lesions on a devil's face and neck, which eventually grow large enough to hinder its ability to eat. An infected devil will grow weaker and may die within months, often from starvation.

This disease has spread rapidly in just a few decades, causing devil populations across Tasmania to decline by more than 80%. The threat is compounded by other pressures from living among humans, since devils are also sometimes killed by vehicles and dogs.

Scientists and conservationists are working to protect Tasmanian devils from DFTD. That includes monitoring the spread of the disease among wild devils, research into possible treatments and vaccines, and the development of healthy "insurance populations." Healthy devils are being quarantined to support a captive-breeding program, and there are now more than 600 devils all around Australia as part of this effort, as well as a disease-free population on Tasmania's Maria Island.