The Tasmanian devil was once spread across mainland Australia, but is now found only on the large island of Tasmania. You will find them in zoos from Sydney to Copenhagen, but they occur in the wild only on the island of Tasmania. When Europeans arrived on the island, they named this carnivorous marsupial the devil because of its ear-splitting screech, fierce facial expressions, and supposed bad temper. They were considered pests—along with the Tasmanian tiger—for eating sheep and were hunted nearly to extinction. The Tasmanian tiger actually was hunted to extinction, with the last recorded one dying in 1936.
In 1941, the little devil, about the size of a small dog, was protected by law. It is an iconic symbol of Tasmania and much beloved by the local people. It is the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service, and its likeness is the logo for everything from businesses to sports teams. However, it is critically endangered. The animals are active from dusk to dawn when they seek out food over wide ranges, and are often killed on the roads; there are active government campaigns to encourage drivers to slow down while driving at night. In the late 1990s, a number of devils were discovered to have a fatal and extremely contagious form of cancer. Because this rare cancer is contagious, there have been vigorous efforts to isolate and protect uninfected populations. In 2010, the first population to survive intact was identified.
As a marsupial, the Tasmanian devil gives birth to totally helpless undeveloped young, and then protects them in a pouch until they are able to survive in the outside world. The female gives birth to about 30 or as many as 50 young, who then must climb up her back and into the pouch where they compete for only four teats. Only the successful four will survive. There are 334 marsupials in the world, and close to 150 of those occur in Australia. They include the country’s cuddly koala, wombats, possums, and bandicoots. Also in the group are kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroos, quokka, and pandemelons, ranging in size from the red kangaroo that reaches six feet in height and can weigh 200 pounds to the monjous, which is only about a foot long and weighs only about three pounds. Guided trekking tours—which can be taken on foot and on mountain bikes and motorcycles—are very popular on Tasmania. Almost all of these will spend at least a day in Tasmanian devil territory.