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8 Fiendish Facts About Tasmanian Devils

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In the Looney Toons, the Tasmanian Devil is a hulking, hungry monster that spins like a tornado, destroying everything in his path. In real life, Tasmanian devils aren’t so dramatic. Here are eight devilish facts about the cartoon’s real-life inspiration. 

1. They’re supremely endangered, thanks to an infectious cancer. 

Between 1997 and 2007, the worldwide Tasmanian devil population declined by more than 60 percent. They are dying en masse from an infectious cancer called devil facial tumor disease. The aggressive cancer passes between the marsupials when they bite each other (as they do during both mating and fighting). The facial tumors that grow as a result of the cancer prevent the Tasmanian devils from eating, and have killed up to 50 percent of the population in some areas.

2. They used to be all over Australia. 

As their name indicates, they’re native to Tasmania, an island just off the southern Australian coast. But centuries ago, the animals also roamed the Australian mainland. The species disappeared from everywhere except Tasmania an estimated 400 years ago, possibly due to competition from dingoes and people. Now, some Australian states are considering reintroducing the predator as a way to save native species from foxes and feral cats.

3. They have pouches. 

Like kangaroos, Tasmanian devils are marsupials, and females have pouches in which they carry their young. The pouch contains four teats to nurse up to four joeys. Unlike in kangaroos, the pouch faces backward (toward the tail). Watch a handler check to see if a captive devil is carrying young in her pouch:

4. They’re the largest marsupial of their kind, but still smaller than most dogs.

Though the Tasmanian Devil of the Looney Toons world seems huge, real Tasmanian devils are actually relatively petite. They’re around the size of a small dog, about a foot tall. However, that does make them the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world (smaller relatives include the quoll and the numbat).

5. They have huge heads and fat tails. 

The head and neck of an adult male Tasmanian devil can be up to a quarter of its overall weight. Similar to other marsupials, they store fat in their tail as a buffer against lean times. 

6. Their jaws are engineered to crush bone.

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Tasmanian devils have most powerful bite relative to their body mass of any carnivore on earth, according to a 2005 study. They are both scavengers and hunters, and feed on wallabies, possums, foxes, birds, and, in farm-heavy areas, the carcasses of sheep and cows. They even eat fur and bones. 

7. “Devil” is not the most unusual name they’re called.

The Latin name for Tasmanian devils is Sarcophilus harrisii, which, according to the Tasmanian government’s fact page on the species, means “Harris’s meat lover,” after the scientist who first described the animal. 

8. They make terrifying noises.

Their otherworldly growls and screams give some insight into why European settlers might have thought they were Satanic. 

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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