The devil within us will kill a charismatic denizen

Tasmanian Devil
January 26, 2007

Every field biologist has a mental list of meccas they need to visit when time, research or a chance scientific meeting allows. High on most biologists' lists would be the Serengeti, the Amazon or the Pantanal in Brazil, the Galapagos Islands, Madagascar and Tasmania - home to the eponymous "devil". These hejiras are as close as any scientist gets to time travel; by visiting parts of the world that were isolated at different geological times, we are provided with glimpses of the different directions evolution has taken with the isolated communities of fauna and flora that live on different continents and islands.

Sadly, we live in a strange time: relatively cheap travel allows us to visit almost anywhere, yet when we get there we almost invariably find the habitat and key species we have come to see are disappearing and, in many cases, almost on the edge of extinction. So, if you want to visit Tasmania, go soon; if you want to learn about one of its most charismatic denizens, take this book and read it en route.

Although national parks and geographic isolation have allowed many species to survive the huge levels of land conversion that characterised human development in the 20th century, we are now finding that parks provide insufficient protection when humans hunt in them or the pathogens of their pets and domestic livestock devastate the populations of species the parks were designed to protect. This is the current plight of the Tasmanian devil, which appears to be host to a new pathogen, devil facial tumour disease, which may have mutated from a similar pathogen in domestic dogs.

Similar fates have befallen the Serengeti lions, which declined by almost a third in the mid-1990s after an epidemic of canine distemper; many wolf and wild dog populations were similarly devastated in the 1980s when canine parvovirus spread rapidly round the world. These pathogens are not a major problem for pet dogs, which can be vaccinated. But in poor rural communities there are few funds for vaccination, and pathogens can spread to wildlife. In the case of the Tasmanian devil, DFTD may prove the final indirect insult to a species that has been persecuted ever since its discovery. David Owen and David Pemberton have done a superb job of weaving this history of misguided persecution into a narrative that provides a detailed introduction to the natural history of Tasmanian devils.

They are fascinating animals. At birth, four of them could sit on the smallest coin. Their body weight increases by a factor of about 15,000, so a full-grown male weighs about 11kg. Compare this with a pet cat, which increases its weight some 20-fold from birth to maturity. Devils have catholic carnivorous tastes and will feed on anything from birds' eggs to carrion; their superb sense of smell allows them to locate rotting meat up to a kilometre away. Their tendency to feed on the carcasses of domestic animals may have helped sully their reputation among the early sheep and dairy farmers, as they were persecuted vehemently for most of the 200 years since their first description in the early 1800s.

Some of the earliest anatomical diagrams of devils were by Errol Flynn's father, and Hollywood's first idol may have had one as a pet as a boy in Tasmania. Studies contemporary to Flynn's boyhood began to change our understanding of devil biology and social behaviour. It began to emerge that rather than being ferocious carnivores, they were secretive animals and really quite shy and retiring. Many of the attacks on domestic sheep for which they were blamed were actually undertaken by the feral dogs that may be the source of the virus now eradicating the devils.

Ultimately, the history of the Tasmanian devil is another example of how human shortsightedness leads us first wilfully, then accidentally, to drive another species to extinction. This book provides an eloquent and insightful synthesis of everything known about the devils, it is thoughtfully organised and written in a captivating style. The illustrations and photos are beautiful, as is the whole book, from the Tasmania map in the frontispiece to the devil footprints that run from page to page.

I worry that when I take my children to Tasmania, this book will be as close as they get to seeing a Tasmanian devil.

Andrew Dobson is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Princeton University.

Tasmanian Devil: A Unique and Threatened Animal

Author - David Owen and David Pemberton
Publisher - Natural History Museum, London
Pages - 240
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 565 09202 2

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