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Beasties With Jaws That Bite, Claws That Catch May Be Angels at Heart : Tasmanian devils: They are "endearing cowards," despite their ferocious reputation, wildlife biologist says. "When I'm handling them, they almost freeze with fear, and they're not aggressive. . . . "

January 02, 1994|DONALD J. FREDERICK | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

HOBART, Australia — With a munch, crunch and chilling gulp, a voracious Tasmanian devil devours a hunk of fresh road kill, a small kangaroo-like wallaby.

The devil shrieks when another devil tries to share the feast. With a bump of the rump that a hockey player would admire, it fends off the intruder.

"It's not pleasant to see them eating," said John Hamilton, director of Tasmanian Devils Park on the southern Australian island of Tasmania.

"Nothing's left when they finish a meal. They devour everything, including bones and fur. Some experts say only the largest of all the sharks exert greater jaw pressure than the Tasmanian devil."

Hamilton's park is a refuge for injured or orphaned animals, and there's no shortage of them. Wildlife experts estimate that more than 100,000 "Tassie devils" roam Tasmania's luxuriant forests and rugged wilderness. The island has become their last stronghold. Once prevalent on the Australian continent, they are now found nowhere else on Earth.

Their belligerent sounds and appearance undoubtedly gave these pouched creatures of the night the ominous "devil" name. Early European settlers associated them with the underworld.

Colored mostly black, befitting nocturnal animals, these marsupials look a bit like misshapen bear cubs. But they have fierce-looking teeth, reddish-purple pointed ears and long hairy tails.

Old devils carry great battle scars. "They've got holes in their ears. They've got broken teeth and bad breath," said Michael Stoddart, a zoologist at the University of Tasmania. "I mean, they look like a football team after they've had a really bad night on the beer."

When they're squabbling over food among themselves, "they make a sound that's a cross between a baby screaming and a cat fight," said Meena Jones, a university wildlife biologist.

A really angry devil is an even more frightening soloist. "It starts out with a monotone growling sound, a single, flat tone that just increases in crescendo until it becomes almost a blood-curdling scream," said Jones. Supported by the National Geographic Society, she recently completed a two-year study of the animals in the wild.

Adult devils, she was surprised to learn, don't lose their youthful ability to climb. A 23-pound male devil, the largest in the area, climbed 6 feet straight up a slender gum tree.

"I really think the devils are using the trees as a lookout post," Jones said, "to get a bit of height and have a listen and smell of their surroundings."

Mostly forest animals, the devils have flourished even though much of their habitat has been cleared for farming and grazing. Nearly 455,000 people live on Tasmania. More than 30% of the island is preserved in national parks and other reserves.

The grazing areas have actually attracted the devils' favorite food, wallabies and kangaroos. Injured or dead ewes, lambs and cattle are also consumed. Skilled scavengers rather than predators, devils can travel as many as six to eight miles a night in search of a good meal.

Tasmanians tell tales of dead cows or horses that all but disappeared overnight. Devils will even eat cattle horns and feet, says Hamilton. "I doubt there's any other animal in the world that's such a complete scavenger."

Devils are "endearing cowards," despite their ferocious reputation, Jones said. "When I'm handling them, they almost freeze with fear, and they're not aggressive. If I let the animals go, it's almost as if they're playing a childhood game. If I have one on my lap and take my hands away and just sit there, it will remain frozen, maybe for minutes without moving a muscle. Then, cautiously, looking from side to side, it will gradually take a step and creep away."

Even medical science has turned to the devils--for a parasite found in the muscles of as much as 30% of the animal population.

The parasite produces a substance that may be useful in fighting some types of inflammations and skin allergies, according to three University of Texas immunologists, George Stewart, Nancy Street and Jerry Niederkorn.

"Our data indicate that if we can synthesize materials from this parasite," Stewart said, "they might have a broad range of medical applications."

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