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Nasty Little Devil
Bil Gilbert
November 21, 1994
In this SI Classic from 1981, the author tracks down a thoroughly unpleasant yet alluring creature in the remotest reaches of Australia
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November 21, 1994

Nasty Little Devil

In this SI Classic from 1981, the author tracks down a thoroughly unpleasant yet alluring creature in the remotest reaches of Australia

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If devils aren't objects of general affection like the koala or the kangaroo, Tasmanians are still quite proud of them, partly because of the worldwide fame of the cartoon character. The feeling is that this is at least one thing the island is known for elsewhere. One result is that the devil is the best-publicized animal in Tasmania. Its head is incorporated in the insignia of the state park and wildlife service. T-shirts bearing a caricature of a snarling devil (and the legend I AM A TASSIE DEVIL), devil drinking glasses, devil postcards and place mats, and even a Tasmanian devil board game—a version of Monopoly—are sold in gift shops.

Despite this exposure, many Tasmanians have never seen a living devil, except in the roadside zoos, and generally know as much about them as do people in Trenton, N.J. Most Tasmanians share an opinion held widely in the rest of the world—that their native scavenger is rare and perhaps on the verge of extinction. This is emphatically not the case. The Tasmanian wildlife service estimates that there may be a million devils on the island, and, if anything, the population is growing too rapidly.

Tasmanians are as outdoorsy as other people and at least as observant. The reason they seldom see the devil is that the species is extremely secretive. It is thoroughly nocturnal, lying up in hollow trees or well-hidden dens during the day, and its coal-black coat, on which the white markings simulate shadow patterns, makes it all but invisible in the nighttime bush. Despite its ferocious appearance, it's a very shy animal, so shy that the aboriginal Tasmanians called it the Cowardly One. Its inclination is to hide when alarmed. Lumberjacks, trappers, hunters and game wardens say that while they hear and smell the animal—along with all their other revolting qualities, devils stink because of glandular secretions and their line of work—they seldom see one.

The first person Sam and I met who had had much to do with feral devils was the owner of a sheep station in the Tasmanian midlands. His name was Digby, and eight generations of his family have lived and worked on the ranch. At present Digby has 16,000 sheep and a good many devils, so many that last year the wildlife service permitted him to trap and destroy 50 of these normally protected animals. Even so, Digby and his sons say they may go a year or more between sightings of a free-roaming devil, and then it's usually a matter of catching one of the animals briefly in the headlight beams while driving at night through their pastures.

Digby doesn't despise the devil with the passion that American sheepmen feel toward coyotes. "They're more of a nuisance," he says. "They'll take occasional domestic fowl from their roosts. A neighbor lost a litter of good shepherd puppies—the bitch left them for an hour or so, and the devils got them. But while some believe otherwise, I've never seen evidence of them killing a fit ewe or lamb. They'll take a weakened or dead animal and make very short work of it. By morning there'll be nothing left but the fleece and the plastic ear tags. We have a notion that they may well be of minor benefit, because they dispose of diseased stock so thoroughly and quickly. We trap to keep the numbers down a bit, on the chance that if they did become too numerous and hungry, they might turn to lambs. But we have no desire to eliminate them. They are part of this country. I wouldn't like to think there were none about."

Digby and his family live in a 150-year-old house built of native sandstone that has turned tawny with age. It's surrounded by a garden nearly as old, in which there are flocks of brilliant wild parrots and, unfortunately, a small grove of apple trees, which caught Sam's attention. After what I felt was an interminable discussion about diseases of apples, Digby returned to the main subject and made a telling comment.

"The devils are rather unpleasant-acting little beasts but perfectly harmless," he said. "I couldn't imagine them, for example, rushing out and savaging a man's leg. But there is another matter I sometimes think of. If I were to suffer an accident in the bush, go down and not be able to move, I'd be absolutely terrified of being found and taken by the devils."

Many of those who took an interest in our quest suggested that we talk to Robert Green, curator of zoology at the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston, the second-largest city on the island, and author of an excellent guide to the mammals of Tasmania and of several monographs on the devil. Green showed no surprise at our purpose and, in fact, seemed to find it curious that he had met so few of our kind. "Marvelous, fascinating creatures," he said. "It's a pity we know so little about them."

Green, who's in his 50's, said that during his entire career he had observed wild, free-ranging devils on only five occasions. However, he has handled more of them than perhaps any other person, having set up zoological shop at sheep stations where devils were being trapped. There he examined and performed autopsies on their carcasses. He's particularly instructive about what the devil is physiologically and how it got that way.

Like many endemic Australian species, the devil is a marsupial, one of the order of pouched, nonplacental mammals. Except for the New World possums and a few of their minor associates, marsupials are now found almost exclusively in Australia and on adjacent islands. In ancient times they were plentiful in both Americas, Asia and Europe. Marsupials seem to have originated on one of those continents, not Australia. Zoological conjecture is that they migrated Down Under some 70 million years ago, very likely from South America, across archipelagos that have since disappeared. They found the land empty of other mammals—probably for geological reasons, few species preceded or followed the marsupials to Australia—and in undisturbed isolation they put on an impressive display of radiation and parallel evolution. That is, they spread out ecologically, evolving so as to fill a number of functional niches that elsewhere are occupied by many orders of mammals. There are marsupials that look somewhat like deer and antelope (the kangaroos and wallabies), squirrels (the sugar gliders), woodchucks (the wombats), bears (the koalas), anteaters (the numbats), lemurs (the cuscuses) and many small creatures that would pass for mice, rats and shrews. In prehistoric times there were cowlike marsupials and a marsupial lion.

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