It has sharp teeth, eats rotting meat and makes a noise so hideous, the first Europeans in Tasmania compared it to the sound of a devil. It’s little wonder we assumed these animals kept mostly to themselves. However, research by the University of Tasmania’s zoology department is shedding light on how Tasmanian Devils socialise, and is providing us with much needed information that could ensure their survival.
In recent years, many Tassie Devils have been affected by the growth of large tumours on their snout that make it difficult for them to feed. To make matters worse, this form of cancer appears to be contagious, spreading between animals as they fight.
Where the disease has been present, up to 95 per cent of the population has died by starvation. The species was listed as endangered in early 2008, with researchers forecasting their possible extinction within the next few decades. One possible solution could be to separate the healthy populations from those affected by the tumours Knowing how individual devils interact with each other could prove important for predicting how the tumours might spread and how best to quarantine sick populations.
Tassie Devils are mostly nocturnal, foraging through the dense undergrowth of the forest for the remains of other animals and hiding out in burrows during the day. This behaviour makes them difficult to study, prompting the zoologists to use special radio collars that record when another collar passes within biting distance.
Far from keeping to small, isolated populations, it appears that all of the animals studied within the national park belonged to a single, large network. It was also discovered most biting happened during mating, passing the disease between male and female devils. Both of these results paint a rather grim picture for the Tasmanian icon’s future.
While there is no simple solution, knowing how this disease spreads is vital for creating effective management plans. It’s also nice to know being short, having bad breath and sounding awful doesn’t mean you can’t have a lot of friends.