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Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)

Activity Cycle

  • Usually nocturnal; will come out during the day to lie in sun
  • Devils active 8 hours per night (Jones 2008)
  • Young, newly-weaned devils are active at dawn and dusk (crepuscular) (Pemberton & Renouf 1993), presumably to avoid conflict with larger adults
  • In a study of wild devils at carcasses provided by researchers (Pemberton & Renouf 1993):
    • Feeding began 2 hours after sunset in winter; less than 30 minutes after sunset in summer
      • Researchers speculate that in summer, devils locate carcasses more quickly due to stronger odors
  • Maintain a primary den in a home range, but use several dens (Pemberton 1990) (Jones 2008)

Home Range

  • Individual overlapping home ranges of 4-27 sq km (1.5-10.4 sq mi) (Pemberton 1990)
  • Males have larger ranges than females do (Jones 2008)

Social Groups

Social Groups

  • Devils are solitary but feed communally (Owen & Pemberton 2005) (Pemberton & Renouf 1993)
    • Devils don't travel in groups, contrary to some folk tales
    • Most vocalizations occur when feeding
  • Social interaction between individuals occurs in the following contexts (Pemberton 1990) (Pemberton & Renouf 1993):
    • When feeding around carcasses
    • Between mother and young
    • During courtship and mating

Dominance hierarchies

  • At carcasses, larger animals have longer to eat before they yield to any hungry newcomer, large or small (Pemberton & Renouf 1993)
    • When devils feed, they engage in a ritualized contest with newcomers; postural displays convey the degree to which the feeder is satiated
    • After hunger is satisfied, they yield to newcomer
    • Large animals do not necessarily feed first as they would in a dominance hierarchy
  • In observations of captive devils, the females were dominant over males except during mating (Owen & Pemberton 2005)

Communication

Visual Displays

  • Ritualized postures used in encounters between feeding devils and newcomers (Pemberton & Renouf 1993)
    • Gape - jaws held open for a few seconds, then slowly closed
    • Neck threat - while positioned close, opponents nip at each other's neck without touching
    • Tripod - while facing opponent, raise one front paw, hold head up and tail down
    • Lying down - lie down while opponent is looking, putting belly on ground with legs extending front and back
    • Sitting - stare at opponent while sitting
    • Stiff-legged - move toward opponent without flexing legs
    • Urinating - urinate in front of opponent, sometimes while walking stiff legged or gaping
    • Bipedal - At some distance from feeding group, newcomer raises up off the ground on tail and hind limbs
    • Ano-genital drag - press ano-genital area to ground, pole along with forepaws; performed by both sexes
    • Shouldering - shoulder of one animal held close to face of other while pair may circle
    • Lope approach - newcomer runs quickly to feeding animal, displacing it
    • Broadside - newcomer orients side to side with feeding devil
    • Stabbing - leap from behind grasses to attack opponent's chest with forepaws
    • Other postures vary position of tail, head, and back
  • All members of the dasyurid family, including the devils, use an open-mouth threat posture (Croft 1982)

Vocalizations (Pemberton & Renouf 1993)

  • Calls in wild devils have only been observed during feedings (Pemberton & Renouf 1993)
  • In captivity, keepers have elicited "songs" from devils (Grzimek 1967)
    • Similarly, wolves and dogs can be encouraged to vocalize along with singing or howling humans
  • Vocalizations by devils represent the largest repertoire of calls in the whole dasyurid family (Croft 1982)
    • For alarm - bark
    • For offensive/defensive interactions - growl, hiss, snort, moan, whine, whine-growl/shriek and stamp (feet thump the ground)
    • For food defense - bark-stamp, snort-bark
  • Calls between males and females were classified into 4 categories by Eisenberg et al. (1975)
    • Click or cluck-like noises
    • Coughs and snorts
    • Growls
    • Hiss
  • In general, marsupial calls are low in intensity and can be easily overlooked by researchers (Eisenberg et al. 1975):
    • Complexity of marsupial calls, however, is similar to those of many placental mammals

Olfaction and scent marking

  • Sense of smell more important than vision for locating food (Sanderson et al.1979)
  • Males and females engage in ano-genital dragging (Owen & Pemberton 2005)
    • Function may be to mark territory, but not well-studied as yet
  • In closely-related quolls, communal latrines may have a social signaling function to other quolls for this largely solitary species (Owen & Pemberton 2005)
    • DNA of spotted tailed quolls' scats in a latrine provides valuable information on breeding status of individuals and claimed resources in a territory (Ruibal et al. 2010)

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

(Pemberton & Renouf 1993)

  • For devils observed feeding in wild, interactions around carcasses did not often lead to physical contact or clashes
    • In 199 observed interactions, only one led to damage:
      • Newcomer squealed and fled, tail-up, while being pursued and bitten on rump by the disturbed devil
      • In two other cases, the pair stood on hind limbs, pressing fore paws on opponent's shoulders or chest, and engaged in jaw wrestling while vocalizing and shaking their heads side to side
  • Around 30% of trapped animals in Pemberton & Renouf's study (1993) show scars or open wounds on muzzles, rumps, and tails
    • Contexts such as copulation and den-related encounters may explain the frequent scarring on individuals' faces and rumps, rather than feeding competition

Territorial Behavior

  • Spotted tailed quolls (Dasyurus maculatus), a close relative of Tasmanian devils, convey social information through well-placed scats (Ruibal et al. 2010)
    • Chemical signals help individuals space themselves over a territory
    • Social information is conveyed through scats regarding breeding readiness, age, fitness
    • Females may stake a claim for a particular den and/or access to food sources by leaving scats at nearby latrine sites

Other Behaviors

  • Young devils "play like puppies" (Owen & Pemberton 2005)
  • In all carnivorous marsupials, social play involves (Croft 2003):
    • Play-fighting
    • Sex play (uncommon)
    • Playchasing
    • Parallel play - two individuals conduct own play, in vicinity of each other

Locomotion

  • Run 3-4 km/hr (1.9-2.5 mph) (Guiler 1992)
  • When chased, can go 19.3 km/hr (12 mph) for short distances (Guiler 1992)
    • When followed by a car, can run 30 km/hr (18.6 mph) (Jones 2003)
  • One tracked male was observed to travel 50 km (31.1 mi) in 48 hours (Jones 2008)
  • Strong swimmers (Owen and Pemberton 2005)
  • Terrestrial, but adults and young can climb trees, the latter in order to chase birds (Jones 2008)
    • Can climb around 2.5 m (8.2 ft) high, as long as tree is less than 20 cm (7.9 in) in diameter for grasping (Jones 1995)

Interspecies Interactions

  • Introduced red foxes pose a danger to juvenile devils as they also use dens and are about the same size (Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service 2011)
    • Adult devils may have vital role in keeping Tasmania free of non-native foxes (Bloomfield et al. 2005)
  • Devils share habitats with another marsupial carnivore, the spotted-tailed quolls (Dasyurus maculatus) (Jones & Barmuta 1998)
    • Devils are 5 times more abundant than the spotted-tailed quolls
    • Male spotted-tailed quolls compete for food all year with the larger, more numerous devils
    • Spotted-tailed quolls are also vulnerable to predation by devils
  • Largest predator in devil's ecosystem is the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle (Aquila audax fleayi) which competes with scavenging devils (Owen & Pemberton 2005)
  • When Tasmanian wolves (Thylacinus) still existed prior to the species' extinction in 1936, they shared the role of top predator with Tasmanian devils (Jones 2003)

Run, Swim, Climb

Tasmanian devil climbing tree

Tasmanian devils are adept on the ground and while climbing trees.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Bloomfield et al. (2005)
Croft (1982, 2003)
Eisenberg et al. (1975)
Grzimek (1967)
Guiler (1992)
Jones (1995, 2003, 2008)
Jones & Barmuta (1998)
Owen & Pemberton (2005)
Pemberton (1990)
Pemberton & Renouf (1993)
Ruibal et al. (2010)
Sanderson et al. (1979)
Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service (2011)

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