Article by: Jane Marsh, Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co
The Tasmanian devil’s ferocious screams belie its size. Slightly heavier than a beagle, the world’s largest marsupial carnivore is still too small for most drivers to see until it’s too late. Vehicle strikes and devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) — a form of contagious cancer — are the leading causes of death in this iconic symbol of Tasmania. Now, biologists are racing the clock to preserve the endangered animal before it’s too late.
Early Extermination Efforts
Tasmanian devils used to roam both Tasmania and mainland Australia, but they went extinct on the mainland thousands of years ago for unknown reasons. The species survived only on the small island of Tasmania. Unfortunately, the first European settlers in Tasmania introduced a bounty for the animal because they believed it killed livestock. From 1830 to 1940, settlers hunted Tasmanian devils to the brink of extinction.
The marsupials became a protected species in 1941. Their population started to recover until the 1950s and 60s, when the government issued permits to capture or poison the animals due to complaints of livestock damage. People also killed Tasmanian devils for fear they carried Trichinella, a parasite that can infect humans.
However, scientific data emerged showing that Tasmanian devils rarely hunted livestock and could not transmit Trichinella to people. Additionally, people learned that the animals eat carrion that would otherwise attract mice and rats, which carry over 35 diseases worldwide. At last — in the 1990s — their numbers started to recover. But just when it seemed like Tasmanian devils were out of the woods, two new problems emerged.
Cancer isn’t a contagious disease in humans, but certain animal cancers can spread from one individual to another. Such is the case with devil facial tumor disease, which, true to its name, causes tumor growth in the faces of Tasmanian devils.
The condition is almost always fatal. It spreads easily because Tasmanian devils greet one another with facial bites, much like dogs nip at each other when playing. They also bite each other’s faces when fighting.
Biologists first discovered DFTD in 1996, and within just 20 years, the disease had killed 80% of all Tasmanian devils. It was a devastating blow to the species, and many people predicted it would go extinct within a few years.
Thankfully, that didn’t come to pass. Scientists are now hard at work on creating a vaccine for DFTD. They’ve also identified some individual Tasmanian devils who appear to be naturally resistant to the condition.
Additionally, many zoos and other conservation centers have bred insurance populations — groups of animals set aside for protection — of Tasmanian devils to ensure the species will survive even if DFTD destroys them in the wild. There are 42,100 species at risk of extinction according to the IUCN Red List, but insurance populations play a crucial role in their survival and in educating people about them.
Reducing Road Deaths
After DFTD, the leading cause of death for Tasmanian devils is getting hit by a car. Their small size and dark coloration make them hard for motorists to see, especially at night. Their love of carrion also attracts them to the roadkill lining many Tasmanian roads. Additionally, driving at high speeds makes it hard to brake in time to avoid hitting them.
The Tasmanian Devil Roadkill Project collects information about Tasmanian devils killed by cars. It aims to identify roadkill hotspots, monitor the persistence of the animals in the environment and reduce roadkill deaths.
The project’s managers encourage the public to submit Tasmanian devil roadkill sightings. They also educate people about how to avoid hitting the endangered animals. They advise drivers to slow down between dusk and dawn, especially in late spring and the end of summer when baby Tasmanian devils disperse to establish their own homes.
Playing Devil’s Advocate
The Tasmanian devil population isn’t likely to recover without human intervention. After all, it was human intervention that reduced its numbers in the first place. Between road deaths and DFTD, Tasmanian devils face an uphill battle for survival.
But their charismatic appearance, tenacious nature and role as Tasmania’s state animal greatly improve their odds, as do the conservation efforts from people working tirelessly to protect them. The haunting shrieks of this resilient animal still reverberate through Australia’s island state — and, with any luck, they won’t be reduced to echoes.