Tasmanian Devil: A Unique and Threatened Animalby David Owen, David Pemberton
Packed with information that has only been published in scientific journals, if ever at all, this collection of biological facts challenges the misconceptions associated with Australia's most famous marsupial. Far from being a scavenging, ferocious oddity, an image perpetuated by the infamous cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil is actually a treasured and
Packed with information that has only been published in scientific journals, if ever at all, this collection of biological facts challenges the misconceptions associated with Australia's most famous marsupial. Far from being a scavenging, ferocious oddity, an image perpetuated by the infamous cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil is actually a treasured and valuable wildlife species facing extinction. By sharing the surprising, controversial, funny, and tragic history behind the world's largest marsupial carnivore, this new guidebook covers all aspects of the biology and the habitat of the Tasmanian Devil.
"A superbly readable account of this bizarre marsupial...the animal beneath the misnomer." The New York Sun
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A Unique and Threatened Animal
By David Owen, David Pemberton
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2005 David Owen and David Pemberton
All rights reserved.
BEELZEBUB'S PUP: A REAPPRAISAL OF THE TASMANIAN DEVIL
Over the years it got to be a war between Dawn and the devils as the stones, wires and other defences around the house foundations got bigger and bigger. Most years, however, the devils won. The growling would be heard and on inspection next morning they had dug their way through the stones and rocks to get back to their nest. Some nights the noise from the devils was amazing. Dawn had a big stick that she would bang on the lounge room floor to quieten them down ...
Debbie Sadler, Orielton
Good stories, no matter how unalike, share a tried and tested formula: intriguing setting; protagonist (good guy) and antagonist (bad guy); plot strength through mystery, drama and action; climax and resolution. In 1863 Morton Allport, a respected Hobart solicitor and naturalist, wrote a letter to his son Curzon describing a trip he had undertaken with a companion into Tasmania's alpine wilderness. An incidental paragraph of that letter exactly covers this formula, in small, slightly slanted handwriting:
Before leaving Boviak Beach [setting], Packer [good guy] was considerably scared [drama] at meeting [action] what he called a Beelzebub's pup [mystery], in other words, a Tasmanian devil [bad guy], near to the camp but it made off [resolution] before the gun was ready [climax, suspended].
The story of the Tasmanian devil is a remarkable one, surprising, controversial, funny, tragic. Nor has it been told before.
Few mammals have been so negatively named. In 1803, when a ragged boatload of English officers, sailors and convicts settled on the banks of the broad Derwent River, deep in the south of Tasmania, they wrongly assumed the island to be a physical extension of the east coast of New Holland, the name at that time for the Australian mainland. Their mistake was understandable, for in this new place were familiar eucalypt trees, kangaroos, wallabies and parrots. The devil, however, had been extinct on the mainland for centuries and so its vocalisations were unknown to these newcomers who, lying in their tents at night, listened nervously to the beast's alien shrieks and screams emanating from densely wooded mountains and valleys.
A case can be made that the settlers heard devils before seeing them, since the animals are nocturnal and rarely about during the day. Why else christen a small, lolloping scavenger after the supreme embodiment of evil? On the other hand, there is something practical about the name. Beelzebub was Satan's first lieutenant, the prince of devils and 'lord of the flies'. Carcasses, flies and Tasmanian devils have a lot in common.
Early written reports of the animal condemned it to persecution. It was incorrectly, though perhaps understandably, described as untameably savage, highly destructive to livestock and with such a fierce bite that ordinary-sized dogs were no match for it. How to classify such a creature? The devil has had an array of taxonomic names, including the scary Sarcophilus satanicus (satanic meat lover) and Diabolus ursinus (diabolical bear). The most commonly accepted name is Sarcophilus harrisii, after the Deputy Surveyor General George Harris who in 1806 described and sketched the devil for the London Zoological Society. But some scientists have in recent times opted for S. laniarius, after mainland fossils so named in the 1830s by the French naturalists Georges Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and the English palaeontologist Richard Owen. To add to the uncertainty, there is also S. moornaensis, an even earlier mainland fossil, as well as another possible species nestled in time and size between S. moornaensis and the extant species. On the other hand, in good Australian vernacular the devil might well be called the pied jumbuck-gobbler, Gulpemdownus woollyturdii.
In 1830 the devil was singled out, along with the thylacine, as stock-destroying vermin to be eliminated through bounty schemes. Yet neither of these species was to blame for livestock losses, as shown by 80 years of bounty records painstakingly collected by Eric Guiler. The real culprits in the hard early years of the colony of Van Diemen's Land were poor management decisions and practices, and large packs of feral dogs. It has to be said, though, that the sight of a few devils tearing into a cast sheep or sick lamb does leave a strong impression.
And what of Packer's fear on Boviak Beach? It is true that devils will eat people, but only cadavers and only if the opportunity is there, such as finding a suicide or murder victim in the bush. Tasmania Police forensic services invariably call upon Nature Conservation Branch officers Nick Mooney and Mark Holdsworth on such occasions.
There are, needless to say, Tasmanian devil bush myths, such as the couple hiking in the wilderness: one slips and becomes trapped under a fallen log, the other goes to get help, returns the next morning, and ... only femur bones and boot-soles are left. In another, a drunk falls into a cattle trough and drowns with his arm hanging out, which gets eaten off.
But an element of caution is probably no bad thing. Alan Scott is manager of the Cameron family farm 'Kingston', at the foot of Ben Lomond. He describes the sprawling property as being 'in the middle of nowhere'. (The late Major R. Cameron swore that in 1998 he saw a pair of thylacines on the property.) Scott says of the disease — that has struck hard in the region — that it is terrible no longer having devils about the place. Yet when he first began working on the property many years ago, and was required to do lone mustering on horseback in remote back paddocks, he feared the prospect of taking a fall, of being incapacitated far from help with night coming on. Indeed, Mooney says he has come across this fear many times.
Devils are opportunistic feeders, not specialist predators. They eat a variety of foods. They do kill live prey, and they forage for carrion, both vertebrate and invertebrate. While there are a few, unsubstantiated, reports of cooperative hunting, with one devil flushing prey and the other chasing it down, the animal is overwhelmingly a solitary hunter. The devil's physique, stealth and ability to run quickly in short bursts make it a good night hunter, with wombats favoured for their fat content and their relative slowness. A devil is incapable of running down a bounding wallaby or sprinting rabbit. Its jaw strength and teeth have evolved to consume carrion, including tough gristle, skin and large bones.
Technically, if a sick lamb or wallaby is near death and a devil begins to eat it, that is an act of predation, not foraging, despite the devil having no role in bringing its 'prey' to that state. It is also technically correct to state that devils hunt tadpoles and moths, both of which feature in their diet. And if a devil opportunistically scents a nest of helpless baby quolls, native hens, wombats or, indeed, devils, and consumes them, that is predation, although the behaviour associated with the act is foraging.
That the devil is not a selective or timid eater is amply borne out, and not just by the antics of its tree-and-rock-chomping cartoon counterpart (which Warner Bros. brought to life in 1954 when there was hardly any available literature on devil behaviour). Items such as shoes regularly disappear off the verandahs of beach shacks and, if ever found again, have been well chewed. Devils love scavenging around rubbish dumps, but so do other opportunistic carnivores such as spotted-tailed quolls, cats, bears, hyaenas and foxes. Devils frequent beaches in search of dead fish and much else potentially edible deposited on the tideline. On one occasion at Geoff King's 'devil restaurant', during the day, Nick Mooney watched newly independent devils fossicking for and eating kelp maggots.
David Randall, who worked as a ranger for many years in all parts of Tasmania, studied the native water rats of the Freycinet Peninsula on the east coast by trapping them with chunks of possum. One morning he found a sprung trap that a devil had subsequently broken into, forcing the wire apart to get at the bait and whatever creature was in there with it.
Garry Sutton, ranger in charge of the Narawntapu National Park in northern Tasmania, once had to shoot an injured horse in the park. Because of its size and the park's public role, he used a front-end loader to dig a deep hole and bury the animal. Devils soon dug tunnels down through the sand to the decomposing corpse.
One of Alan Scott's cows died giving birth. He left the corpse overnight and returned the next morning to see 'a devil coming out the backside'. That's not unusual: the easiest way into a large animal is through the soft parts. And Guiler reported that he and a colleague 'found three devils sleeping off their feast inside the rib cage of a cow they were consuming'.
The observed record for devils feeding simultaneously — also on a cow — is 22. This is a remarkable behavioural aspect of this generally solitary animal. It is also misunderstood behaviour, and one of the reasons why devils have such a bad reputation.
Far from being a free-for-all, communal devil feeding is structured and purposeful, and is properly described as ritualised behaviour. The screaming and apparent fighting is an elaborate combination and variety of vocalisations and postures by which order is maintained. The noises also act as a compass at night, alerting other devils in the area — just as daylight-circling vultures attract others — which saves them wasting energy looking for food. Smaller carcasses equal less noise. The perceived practice of eating 'everything' — because it disappears — is the result of individuals taking what they can and hiding with their share to consume it in peace.
Devils are the great hygienists of the Tasmanian bush and long ago extended that courtesy to farmers, eating their dead and sick livestock and in the process breaking the sheep tapeworm cycle, keeping the blowfly population down and relieving conscientious landowners of the need to bury dead stock. For these reasons there have been proposals to introduce devils to Flinders Island and King Island, where roadkill wildlife smells and is unsightly, attracting adverse reactions from tourists. One problem with the proposal is that the same danger would be posed to devils feeding by the roadside: speeding cars. A solution would be to heave roadkill into the bush, where it can be consumed in safety. Devil researcher Menna Jones and her volunteers did this along the road to Coles Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula almost every night during the years of her work there. The number of devils killed by cars decreased dramatically.
Communal feeding gives rise to the apparent paradox that this asocial animal indulges in a complex social ritual as often as every third or fourth night. David Parer, an internationally known film-maker specialising in wildlife documentaries, has spent many years filming and observing devils and is well aware of the social nature of the species: 'We think of them as bad-tempered and vicious but watch them in the den and their family lives are not unlike a human life. There's playtime, squabbles, dinner time, discipline problems, teaching and learning'.
Are Tasmanian devils dangerous? Of the many people working closely with devils — biologists, orphan carers, wildlife park employees — few would disagree that although individual animals have greatly varying personalities the species as a whole is timid. A wild devil trapped in a cage (though not a painful leg-hold trap or snare) will 'freeze' or become inert and won't struggle if carefully handled. Quolls, by contrast, bolt as soon as they can, and possums are notoriously difficult to handle. Guiler experimented empirically by putting devils and rats together in a small enclosure. The devils, he reported, were at times wary of the scurrying rats. If anyone knew them, Guiler did: 'most of the more than 7000 Tasmanian devils he handled were docile to the point of being lethargic and could be handled with ease'.
On the other hand devil rage, though rare, is real. Early in 2005 two wildlife volunteers released a newly weaned devil from a trap. It turned and chased them so aggressively that they had to leap onto their car. Devils can often be seen chasing one another in their wildlife park enclosures, and the same behaviour occurs in the wild during feeding bouts.
Devils scare easily and when startled will often shake. A screeching and biting devil acting purely out of fear will, however, if held firmly, become very still. And they are sensitive. In 2004 both David Pemberton and his family and Nick and Kate Mooney hand-reared devils whose mothers had died from DFTD. Pemberton visited the Mooneys one Saturday, after which, said Nick, their devil Eric, 'a charismatic charmer with a short fuse, came in behaving normally, until Kate fired up the vacuum cleaner — he changed completely and has remained one hundred per cent timid for days, hiding in dark corners. I suspect a combination of [lingering] smells from David's devils [on his clothes] and the size and noise of the cleaner may have told him that a large, dominant devil had entered the house'.
Timid and sensitive, yes — yet in the popular imagination the devil has always been considered quite the opposite, as in this ludicrous 1917 description:
Curiosity having been aroused as to why these ugly things received their highly suggestive name, it was stated that there can be little doubt that they deserved it. It is another case of ugliness going to the bone. Indeed, any virtues they possess are negative ones, and their vices are most positive. They are very savage, and have frequent fights among themselves, while they slay other creatures for the mere wanton lust of slaughter. When they attack anything, a member of their own tribe or any other species, they will practically tear it to pieces in sheer ruthlessness ... During the day it is too sleepy to be otherwise than very stupid, but with the oncoming of covering darkness it displays a cunning and a cleverness inseparably connected in the human mind with the original owners of the despised name of devil.
The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus ursinus) has the reputation of being the fiercest, most wantonly destructive beast in the animal kingdom. It is ugly and morose; a small animal, black with a white front to the throat, it is capable of doing enormous damage to sheep, killing wantonly sometimes large numbers of the flocks. Fortunately for the Tasmanian farmer, if not for Natural History, the number of devils is decreasing rapidly.
No less a scientist than Clive Lord, an eminent early Director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, described the devil as 'exceedingly quarrelsome' and later as 'of fierce disposition ... It cannot be considered a pleasant animal to have much to do with'. Devils were presumed to be scarce when Lord wrote about them and, if they were, it is possible that he had relied on scanty and biased rural accounts for his observations, because he was wrong on all three counts.
Mistakes are understandable — up to a point. When, in 1962, a London newspaper ran a feature on Tasmanian devils and accompanied it with a photograph of a thylacine, the editor received fourteen complaints. Less forgivable is a popular American animal encyclopedia which, even in its sixth printing in 1988, stated: 'The Tasmanian devil is jet black with white blotches and a bright pink nose, ears, feet and tail ... The Devil is a burrower but when cornered it will often dive into the water and swim a long distance before surfacing under banks or overhanging vegetation'. As a combination of a platypus and a kindergarten painting this takes some beating.
Equally improbable is the link the Tasmanian devil supposedly had with the enduring American myth of the Jersey Devil. This creature allegedly came to exist in the eighteenth century in the swamps of south-eastern New Jersey, having a horse-like head, wings, cloven feet and thick tail. Sightings of it were regular, including one by Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Joseph while hunting there (Joseph lived in America between 1815 and 1832) and it was even seen in the company of a headless pirate. Joseph Bonaparte may have known of a strange new 'devil' animal because his sister-in-law, the Empress Josephine, kept a menagerie that included marsupials.
During one week in 1909, some 30 sightings of the Jersey Devil caused near-panic. The Smithsonian Institution speculated that it might be a Jurassic survivor, possibly a pterodactyl or peleosaurus which had survived in the region's limestone caves. More plausible, if that is the word, was that 'New York scientists thought it to be a marsupial carnivore'.
But confusion arising out of words and myth pales beside reality on the ground. Tasmanian devils have been mercilessly persecuted. Nineteenth-century bounty hunting gave way to widespread strychnine poisoning in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, with baits laid by farmers and also by trappers who made a living from possum and wallaby pelts. Snaring was a substantial business; in the 1923 season, for instance, 693 147 possums were snared and about half that number of wallabies. Yet spotted-tailed quolls probably damaged more snared animals than devils did, because they had a greater ability to reach a carcass suspended above the ground.
Excerpted from Tasmanian Devil by David Owen, David Pemberton. Copyright © 2005 David Owen and David Pemberton. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Meet the Author
David Owen is the editor of the Australian literary journal Island. He is the author of nine novels and Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger. David Pemberton is the Vertebrate Curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
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