The Tasmanian Devil is the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and takes prey up to the size of a small wallaby, but in practice it is opportunistic and eats carrion more often than it hunts for live prey. It has a squat and thickset build, with a large head and a short stubbish tail. Unusually for a marsupial, the forelegs are a little longer than the hindlegs. The fur is usually black; irregular white patches on the chest and rump are common. Males are usually larger than females, weighing up to 12 kg (though 7 to 9 kilos is more typical), and stand 30 cm (12 inches) at the shoulder. The Tasmanian Devil is a nocturnal and crepuscular hunter, spending the days in dense bush or in a hole.
Mating takes place in March and up to 4 young are born a month later. They are carried in a pouch which, like that of the wombat opens to the rear. They leave the pouch in August as fully formed but small copies of the parent, and remain in the den for another three months or so, first starting to venture outside in November before becoming independent in January.
Although Tasmanian Devils are difficult to see, most visitors to the Tasmanian bush stand a very good chance of hearing them—their noisy communal eating can often be heard several kilometres away. Tasmanian Devils will eliminate all traces of a carcass as they devour all bones and fur in addition to the meat and innards of a carcass. This has earned them the gratitude of Tasmanian farmers, as the speed at which they will clean a carcass helps prevent the spread of insects that might otherwise harm livestock.
Tasmania was for some time the last refuge of large marsupial carnivores. All the larger carnivourous marsupials became extinct in mainland Australia shortly after humans arrived. Only the smallest and most adaptable survived. Fossil evidence shows that Tasmanian Devils retained a place until around 600 years ago. (About 200 years before European colonisation.) Their extinction is attributed to Dingos, although the 6000 year gap between the initial arrival of the Dingo and the last known mainland Devil remains unexplained.
In Dingo-free Tasmania, marsupial carnivores were still active until Europeans arrived. The extermination of the Thylacine is well known; it is less well-known that the Tasmanian Devil was also threatened.
A bounty scheme was introduced as early as 1830. Over the next hundred years, trapping and poisoning brought them to the brink of extinction. Even after the death of the last Thylacine, action was slow in coming, but eventually, in 1941, they were protected by law, and the population has slowly recovered.
They are widespread throughout Tasmania and fairly common, particularly in dry sclerophyll forest and coastal woodland with open patches. They occupy territories of 8 to 20 km2 which overlap considerably: much of the noise they produce is the result of several animals gathering at a carcass.
Unfortunately, Tasmanian Devils are suffering under an outbreak of a sarcoma cancer spread by a virus -- eventually causing death. Little is known about the virus, although it is assumed to be a retrovirus. However there is hope for the population, as it has been observed that the young Tasmanian Devils are not susceptible to the illness.
The Tasmanian Devil is probably best known internationally as the inspiration for an American cartoon character of the same name, which bears little resemblance to it.