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Known for it’s bright white smile, the Tasmanian devil is one of the weird but wonderful marsupials ...
2020-09-04 09:00:00

Dog or Demon?
The Grinning Devil

Illustration by Natka Bimer
Dog or Demon?
Dog or Demon?

Constantly moving, omnivorous, with a disarming smile. If only it didn’t get into so many fights. Meet the Tasmanian devil.

Read in 3 minutes

As with every marsupial, it’s not quite clear what’s going on here. It just happens that the mammals inhabiting the Australian continent are the avant-garde of the chordates, individualists shaped by millions of years of geographical isolation from the rest of the world. Supposedly similar to other four-legged creatures, but there’s always something a bit off, something that doesn’t fit. As if somebody used structural plans we know well, but got lost here and there, sticking original ideas onto the well-known forms of the animal body.

With the Tasmanian devil, it starts with the smile. The first thing that jumps out at you is a neon-bright set of shockingly white teeth floating in the air. Against the backdrop of the black devil, these teeth look almost like the Cheshire Cat’s smile floating in the air. When to the two rows of grinning, snow-white teeth you add the head of tar-black devil’s fur and shining black eyes, you have the full package: an eight-kilogram animal shaped like a plump dog, with slightly elongated front paws and a surprisingly thick tail.

It’s a creature in constant motion, always exploring its surroundings. When chasing down prey, it can reach speeds of 20 km/h. Not that it frequently breaks out in such athletic feats; Tasmanian devils do in fact hunt, but they also frequently subsist on carrion dug up from under the ground or roadside ditches. In the case of particularly large items (of carrion), they can even gnaw all the way inside, occupying the carcass for several days.

In addition to carrion, small Australian mammals (including the painfully spiky echidna) and insects, the devil’s menu also includes birds’ eggs (a particular favourite of young devils), fruit and also less nutritious items (later found in the devils’ collective defecation sites): clothes pegs, pieces of blue jeans and pencil fragments. All of this, making its way into the devil’s digestive tract, spends a shockingly short time there – these mammals have some of the fastest digestive processes. This and many other fascinating details from the devils’ life are known to us thanks in part to the aforementioned tendency to communal defecation at sites known as devil latrines.

Tasmanian devils aren’t as sinister as their name would indicate. In Tasmania, in fact, they’re desirable companions for farmers: in a flash they help get rid of dead animals, who in the island’s warm climate quickly attract unpleasant scavenging bugs. In their efficient dispatch of carrion (and they eat absolutely all of it, including bones, hooves and hair), the devils are assisted by their exceptionally sharp teeth (it’s no coincidence that they’re the first thing you notice!) and one of the strongest bites in the mammal world. A devil’s jaws can bite through even a serious steel cable.

Like all marsupials, female devils carry their young in a pouch on their bellies. The males have to fight for their mates, primarily because of how picky the females are. Unfortunately, these fights also spread one of the strangest diseases in the animal world. The population of Tasmanian devils is being decimated by a very unusual cancer, which primarily attacks their muzzles, the area of their nose and eyes, causing DFTD: devil facial tumour disease. It differs from other cancers in that it’s contagious: biting each other’s faces during their fights, the devils transfer cancer cells, ‘infecting’ each other with the cancer. This is the only example known in nature of transmission of cancers not from one body part to another, but to a different individual. In addition to the specific, aggressive mating behaviour, the epidemic of this disease is driven by the exceptionally small genetic variation among devils, which deprives the population of valuable genes responsible for fighting cancers and halting growth in their prevalence.

Will the devils fight off this strange, ruthless disease? It’s surely vain to hope for better manners and more peaceful behaviour during mating season. We’re left to hope that monitoring their population, isolating diseased individuals and giving them medications that stimulate their immune systems will save this unique species from dying out.


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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