Talking Tasmanian devils

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

We caught up with wildlife worker Taylor Benny to find out more about the iconic Tasmanian Devil.

Read our interview below. 

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Thank you so much for giving us your time, we really appreciate you speaking with us!

Tasmania is a very beautiful and very unique place. For those who have not been fortunate enough to visit it for themselves, what is it that makes the ecosystems of Tasmania so uniquely special ?

The last land bridge connecting Tasmania to mainland Australia existed some 12 000 to 13 500 years ago. Since the disappearance of the land bridge, Bass Strait has acted as a biological filter preventing the arrival of larger predators such as the dingo and resulting in the survival of many species that once occurred on the mainland. Being surrounded by water, this has limited the dispersal of plants and animals, leading to the development of unique flora and fauna.

As one of the last landmasses to break away from the Gondwana supercontinent, Tasmania bears strong geological and ecological similarities to Antarctica. Ancestors of unique and endemic Tasmanian plant species have been found as fossilised remains in Antarctica.

Tasmania has a lot of topographical variation over a small geographical area and this affects the wind intensity, rainfall and other aspects of Tasmania’s climate. As a result, a diverse range of ecosystems exist from alpine communities on the higher altitude plateau, cool temperate rainforests in high rainfall areas, wet and dry eucalypt forests to grasslands, buttongrass moorlands, wetlands and coastal vegetation communities at lower elevations. Tasmania’s diverse mosaic of vegetation communities harbour a large variety of flora and fauna. 

Photo by Sylvia Yang on Unsplash

Tasmania is famous for many things and one of them is sadly now the extinct Tasmanian Tiger. Could you explain to our readers a little about the knock on effects on loosing carnivores from an ecosystem?

Carnivores are important for keeping the ecosystem in balance. Losing top predators can have cascading effects down the food chain such as: increased numbers of browsing animals from reduced predation pressure leading to overpopulation of prey species; behavioural changes in prey species with reduced fear therefore limited restriction of movement and increased competition between prey species leading to decreases in biodiversity. Increased numbers of herbivores leads to depleted resources, with pressure on plants reducing their ability to sequester carbon. As their food source becomes scarce prey species also become sick or malnourished. Scavengers play an important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem by removing dead carcasses that may otherwise cause disease amongst populations. Additionally, apex predators play a role in controlling invasive species such as feral cats and the red fox that would otherwise take advantage of an abundance of food.

Working with these charismatic animals, you I am sure would have had some amazing experiences, what could you tell us about them our readers may not know?

I was surprised at how different they are compared with how they are perceived by the general public and the media based on their loud and often frightening fights over dinner. Many of their vocalisations are bluff to minimise potential injury from fighting when feeding together. They aren’t scary and are actually quite cute keeping in mind they do have a powerful jaw and sharp teeth! 

It is the world’s largest surviving carnivorous marsupial (after the extinction of the Thylacine).

Devils are generally nocturnal and are good at spotting things that are moving, but if something stands still they likely won’t see it as clearly.

Devils have a powerful jaw that can bite as hard as a 40kg dog. They will eat any part of a carcass including the bones and fur.

A mother can give birth to 20-40 young however only has four teats in her pouch so it’s a race for survival.

Devils are very good swimmers.

They DO NOT spin in circles like Taz, the Warner Bros cartoon character.

Tasmanian Devils are predominantly scavengers, however during the 1800s, they suffered heavily from persecution from livestock owners fearing attempts of predation, how would you say the reputations of these animals with farmers are now?

Tasmanian Devils are better understood now across Tasmania and protected by law (since 1941), as a result their numbers have increased (with healthy fluctuations due to disease) up until Devil Facial Tumour Disease DFTD, which was first identified about 1999. Devils scavenge from sheep and cattle carcasses and can kill and eat sick or injured sheep in addition to chickens or ducks.  However, they play an important role by eating sick and dead animals which promotes better hygiene in the ecosystem by reducing the risk of blowfly strike to sheep by removing food for maggots. Sadly, due to the reduction in the population anecdotal evidence suggests that they are not seen as frequently by farmers as they used to be.

The nature of the animal being a social animal has again not helped with their image, I recently read their communications being described as “raucous screams” can you explain a little more about why these sounds are essential for these amazing animals? 

The famous gape of the Tasmanian devil is more expressing fear and uncertainty rather than aggression. Many of their vocalisations including high pitched screeches, loud coughs and huffs, are a bluff used whilst feeding in groups to avoid physical fights that might result in injury. Vocalisation is also an important form of communication for nocturnal animals when they cannot rely upon visual cues.

Of course Tasmanian Devils are not the only animals to be demonised for the crime of living naturally, Spotted Hyena for example also suffer from a similarly poor reputation. What do you think needs to change in perceptions for carnivores around the world?

Educating people on how important carnivores are to maintaining a balanced and healthy ecosystem and how they actually benefit humans as opposed to competing with them. Encourage tourism, where landholders make money from hosting people coming to see these wonderful animals in their environment for example a natural devil viewing experience which has occurred in the past. 

Of course Devil Faced Tumour Disease has caused horrendous declines in Tasmanian Devil populations, how do you see the future for these amazing animals, can they be saved?

There is currently no cure or successful vaccine, however research is still being undertaken to create a vaccine and researchers have been making advances in developing an insurance population and protecting isolated devil populations. Researchers are currently focusing on bolstering devil numbers in wild populations that have been previously impacted by DFTD, by introducing genetic diversity and increased immunity through vaccination efficacy. I am personally optimistic, the population size of the species has fluctuated greatly over time and they recovered from near extinction in the past. Additionally, the smaller population size may benefit species diversity in the long run forcing the individuals to travel further to mate. 

If people reading this want to help the cause of conserving this iconic species how can they do so?

Visit this website to see how you can assist https://dpipwe.tas.gov.au/wildlife-management/save-the-tasmanian-devil-program/how-you-can-help-and-donation-information.

Importantly, if visiting Tasmania avoid driving at night where possible and if this cannot be avoided drive slowly and take care. Roadkill is the second biggest threat to Tasmanian Devils after DFTD.

Image by pen_ash from Pixabay 

What would it mean to you if Tasmania lost the Tasmanian Devil for good?

Tasmania will have lost one of its most iconic and unique species, and, after the loss of the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), we need to learn the lessons and determine not to lose Australia’s second largest marsupial predator. Beyond this the devil is an Apex predator, its current absence due to low population numbers has already changed the behaviour and feeding patterns of species in lower trophic levels. Additionally, the niche left behind in the devils absence could be filled with invasive species such as the common cat.