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May 18, 2021

1/27/2009 12:46:00 PM
Devil Indemnity

Dee Bonner

The Tasmanian Devil is a carnivorous animal found only on the Australian island of Tasmania. It is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, the size of a small dog, but stocky and far more muscular.

When agitated, the devil produces a strong, pungent odor. The stink is as bad as a skunk. The Tasmanian Devil has a highly developed sense of hearing, an excellent sense of smell and the strongest bite of any living mammal. The power of its jaw is due to the devil's comparatively large head.

The Tasmanian Devil is especially vicious when feeding. The creatures eat carrion, small native mammals, domestic mammals as large as sheep, plus birds, fish and reptiles. Tasmanian Devils can eat up to 40% of their body weight in 30 minutes. For purposes of comparison, that's about the same proportion consumed by a typical Wal-Mart shopper in a single day. Eating is a social event for Tasmanian Devils. The eerie screeching noises that result from their communal feeding can be heard several miles away. When feeding, Tasmanian Devils eliminate all traces of a carcass, devouring the bones and fur in addition to the meat and internal organs.

Now, according to researchers at the University of Tasmania in Australia, a contagious, fatal form of cancer called devil facial disease is infecting Tasmanian Devils. The disease was first detected in 1996 and causes certain death of the animals between the ages of two and three.

Normally, Tasmanian Devils live up to six years, breeding at ages two to four, but with the new disease, even females who breed at age two may not live long enough to rear their first litter. However, according to researchers, Tasmanian Devils are adapting by breeding at age one. This may be an attempt to prolong the species in the face of an extinction-causing disease.

"We may be witnessing evolution before our eyes" says zoologist Menna Jones. The disease could cause extinction of the devils in 25 years, she said, but this adaptation to younger breeding may slow the population decline and reduce chances of them disappearing. "To our knowledge, this is the first known case of infectious disease leading to increased early reproduction in a mammal," Jones and her colleagues reported.

Animals trying to avoid extinction by breeding early? Do you suppose humans are doing the same thing?

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