A rapidly spreading, deadly facial cancer has killed off 70 percent of the wild population of Tasmanian devils, leading the Australian government to designate the creature “endangered” on Friday *. The world’s most famous Tasmanian devil, the character Taz from Looney Tunes, is aggressive and excitable. Are the real ones like that, too?
Yes, especially when feeding. Although devils do hunt other animals—wallabies, possums, and wombats are especially attractive—they’re primarily scavengers. They scavenge in groups of five to 12, possibly because it’s easier to pull apart a carcass together than alone. The competition for limited resources makes each devil highly protective of its share of the food. While eating, they emit a blood-curdling screech and nip at one another’s faces, often drawing blood.
Mating is also a violent process. Males fight over females, and whoever wins grabs the female by the scruff of her neck and drags her back to a den, where they mate. (Watch two male devils fight over a female here.) The male must then defend the female during her 21-day gestation period, lest other males come and try to mate with her, too. The babies also have to fight one another—female devils give birth to 40 or 50 young every season, all of whom must compete for their mother’s four teats.
Plenty of animals fight over food and mates, of course, but Tasmanian devils are measurably tougher than most. Pound for pound, Tasmanian devils have the strongest bite of any living mammal, thanks to their relatively large heads and powerful jaw muscles. With that kind of force, devils, which tend to weigh less than 20 pounds, can take down animals four times their size. Their jaws are also strong enough to crunch through bones.
When devils aren’t mating or feeding, however, they can be quite peaceful—spending much of their time alone in their dens. In the presence of humans, furthermore, Tasmanian devils are fairly timid. If you approach them, they’ll either scurry off or become paralyzed with fear.
Early European settlers likely chose the moniker devil after hearing the animal’s blood-curdling shriek, and the sound of crunching bones during feedings. The Looney Tunes cartoon character didn’t originate until the 1954 episode Devil May Hare, in which Bugs Bunny dispatches the Tasmanian devil by, naturally, setting him up with a female. (Watch it here.)
It’s the creatures’ odd practice of biting one another’s faces that causes the cancer known as devil facial tumor disease to spread so quickly. First discovered in 1996, the cancer is characterized by large lesions and lumps on the Tasmanian devil’s face. The animal typically starves to death three months after infection, since the tumors interfere with feeding.
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Explainer thanks Rick Janser of Albuquerque Biological Park and Elizabeth Murchison of the Australian National University.
Correction, May 27, 2009: This article originally referred to devil facial tumor disease as a virus. It is a nonviral cancer believed to be spread by direct transmission of cancer cells during biting. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)