8 Fiendish Facts About Tasmanian Devils


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.

Image Credit: iStock

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. 

Watch How a Bioluminescence Expert Catches a Giant Squid

Giant squid have been the object of fascination for millennia; they may have even provided the origin for the legendary Nordic sea monsters known as the Kraken. But no one had captured them in their natural environment on video until 2012, when marine biologist and bioluminescence expert Edith Widder snagged the first-ever images off Japan's Ogasawara Islands [PDF]. Widder figured out that previous dives—which tended to bring down a ton of gear and bright lights—were scaring all the creatures away. (Slate compares it to "the equivalent of coming into a darkened theater and shining a spotlight at the audience.")

In this clip from BBC Earth Unplugged, Widder explains how the innovative camera-and-lure combo she devised, known as the Eye-in-the-Sea, finally accomplished the job by using red lights (which most deep-sea creatures can't see) and an electronic jellyfish (called the e-jelly) with a flashy light show just right to lure in predators like Architeuthis dux. "I've tried a bunch of different things over the years to try to be able to talk to the animals," Widder says in the video, "and with the e-jelly, I feel like I'm finally making some progress."

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

Big Questions
Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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