Devils' Advocates: Catching a Slice of Tasmanian Devil Life [Slide Show]
Take a look at the animals that researchers have sighted or captured while in the field to study a contagious cancer that is destroying Tasmanian devil populations
Credits: Sarah Peck
FREYCINET PENINSULA Freycinet Peninsula, where author Menna Jones saw her first sick devil in 2001, might one day be a place of hope. If scientists can identify devils that are resistant to the cancer, introducing them to the Freycinet Peninsula might help to restore the region's decimated ranks.
ANOTHER SET OF BABIES Two five-month-old babies were photographed on their healthy, three-year-old mother in West Pencil Pine.
Whereas mothers care for their young, males deal with the mating season's after effects in their own way. By the end of the four- to six-week season, Menna Jones says, a male is exhausted. "He has been constantly fighting other males, and covering his large home range to be in the right place when females come in season. Mating involves charging at the female with a show of bravado, dragging them by the scruff of the neck into a den, then pushing and nudging them into submission while he makes a soft nest from grass and bracken fern. He mates with each female a number of times over a two- to five-day period. Each copulation takes up to one and a half hours. This is followed by intensive mate guarding, in which he has to be aware and alert to both the female escaping and other males coming in. All the while, he has had little to eat and even less sleep." It is not uncommon for a male to lose 25 percent of his body weight and to end up with "massive wounds on his face, with pieces of flesh up to two inches by two inches missing from his jowls."
LITTLE DEVILS This three-year-old mother and her young were photographed in 2000, before the devil tumor disease reached their territory. Female devils are having babies at younger ages these days—a survival strategy that enables at least some of them to perpetuate the species before catching and succumbing to the cancer.
MALE ABOUT TO GO FREE A four-year-old male stands defiant after being examined and released by researchers in Narawntapu National Park on the northern coast of Tasmania (about 250 kilometers north of the capital, Hobart).
Rodrigo Hamede Advertisement
DEVIL MAY CARE Hamede releases an old, wild female devil after checking her for cancer and giving her a clean bill of health at the West Pencil Pine study site, near Cradle Mountain–Saint Clare National Park, in northwestern Tasmania.
OPEN WIDE In northern Tasmania Rodrigo Hamede examines the mouth of a male devil for devil facial tumor disease.
DEVIL FREED FROM A TRAP A devil checks its surroundings before leaving a trap in West Pencil Pine, a study site near Cradle Mountain–Lake Saint Claire National Park, in northwestern Tasmania.
Author Jones says that researchers do not much fear being bitten by captured wild devils. "Bites from wild devils are not common. I would get bitten about once a year during field trapping, either by a scared baby devil or by a big boy like this one in the mating season. I get bitten more frequently when handling captive devils, which are not afraid of people and assert themselves much more. Devils' bites can be severe but are generally not, mostly just bruising. Their front teeth are blunt from eating bones. Unlike dogs, they generally snap and release rather than hang on." Even if investigators were bitten by an animal with a tumor, they would be unlikely to catch the cancer because the human immune system would recognize and destroy any tumor cells conveyed through the bite.
AUTHOR CARRYING A CAPTURED ANIMAL Menna Jones holds the largest male devil she every caught: a guy named Bozo, weighing it at 13.5 kilograms and living in Freycinet National Park. Jones says: "I love his personality—'I'm the biggest boss, don't mess with me' is written all over his expression in this photo. He was by far the most aggressive and dominant devil that I trapped on the Freycinet Peninsula. This photo was taken just prior to the mating season, when he was in prime condition. He was feisty and didn’t particularly like being messed with, including handled. This particular male is the only devil to have charged at me (twice!). It was a
bluff, though, and he spun around when he was one meter away and ran off."
In general, she says, "wild devils are quite wary of people, and when handled they usually lie quietly. I handle them very gently, and after they have been caught several times they lose their fear of me. Some of them become so familiar that they sniff my arm if I am wearing sunscreen, hide their face in my armpit if the sun is bright, and growl if they have got themselves trapped too many days in a row and they are tired of sitting in a trap. When I have finished weighing and measuring a devil, and taking a photo if we do that, I can place them gently on the ground in front of me and they run away." Menna Jones Advertisement
POOR DEVIL This wild three-year-old was the first victim of devil facial tumor disease seen by author Menna Jones, in Freycinet National Park on the east coast of Tasmania. The year was 2001. Tumor cells break off readily and spread from one animal to another when a devil with a tumor bites a second individual during a fight or sex. The animals bite one another frequently.
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