Tasmanian devils return to mainland Australia for first time in 3,000 years

Scientists hope the scrappy predators’ reintroduction can balance ecosystems ravaged by invasive species.

Tasmanian Devil

It’s been 3,000 years since the Tasmanian devil’s raspy shriek rang through the forests of mainland Australia. But now, thanks to a dogged reintroduction effort, 26 of these endangered tiny terrors have returned.

No bigger than a lapdog, these marsupials are famous for their ferocity and powerful jaws, which can reduce large carcasses to smithereens in minutes. But in the 1990s, the species was hit with a contagious and deadly mouth cancer, causing its only remaining wild population, on the Australian island state of Tasmania, to drop to just 25,000 animals.

It’s unknown why the species disappeared from Australia millennia ago, but it’s likely due to human actions—when early hunters killed off most of the continent’s megafauna, the devils had nothing left to eat.

As scavengers, devils play a crucial role in maintaining a balanced, healthy ecosystem—which is why scientists have been trying so hard to bring them back.

“We’ve worked for over a decade to get to this point,” says Tim Faulkner, president of AussieArk, a species recovery organization. The group collaborates closely with the nonprofits Global Wildlife Conservation and WildArk to orchestrate the release of captive-raised animals into a thousand-acre fenced area called Barrington Wildlife Sanctuary, just north of Barrington Tops National Park in eastern Australia.

Despite their fearsome reputation, “they’re no threat to humans or agriculture,” he adds.

Tasmanian devils

Sarcophilus harrisii

  • TYPE: Mammals
  • DIET: Carnivore
  • SIZE: 20 to 31 inches
  • WEIGHT: 9 to 26 pounds
  • POPULATION TREND: Decreasing
  • IUCN RED LIST STATUS: Endangered

Even still, reintroducing animals is uncertain business, so the scientists did a soft launch of 15 devils in March of this year. The team used radio-collars to check in on the released devils, as well as put out kangaroo carcasses for food as the animals adjusted to their new home. After all of the devils showed signs of thriving, the scientists felt optimistic enough to release another 11 individuals on September 10—and now they beasts are mostly on their own.

“They’re free. They’re out there,” says Faulkner. “We’ve got some basic means of keeping an eye on them. But essentially, now it’s over to the devils to do what they do.”

Fighting off invaders

To prepare for the devils’ arrival, Faulkner’s team fenced off a large chunk of protected eucalyptus forest, took out invasive plants, cleared leaf litter that can lead to forest fires, and used humane lethal control to remove red foxes and feral cats—introduced predators that have devastated the continent’s small mammal populations. (Read how quolls, a cat-size marsupial, were reintroduced to mainland Australia.)

Feral cats don’t prey on the devils—in fact, it’s the felines that might need to be concerned.

“The presence of devils on the landscape seems to put the cats off a bit,” says David Hamilton, a devil expert and research assistant at the University of Tasmania who was not involved in the reintroduction project. Devils don’t usually eat cats, but instead force them to hunt during dusk and dawn to avoid run-ins with the nocturnal devils.

It may seem minor, but this small shift in behavior can actually protect night-dwelling native species, such as bandicoots, several species of which are considered endangered in Australia. Interestingly, bandicoot populations increase where devils are more prominent than cats, says Hamilton.

Source: National Geographic.