Big John the Tasmanian devil growls from his tree house at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo. Tasmanian devils recently returned to mainland Australia for the first time in some 3,000 years. (AP)

Big John the Tasmanian devil growls from his tree house at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo. Tasmanian devils recently returned to mainland Australia for the first time in some 3,000 years. (AP)

Tasmanian devils are released into the wild at Barrington Tops, Australia. Conservation group Aussie Ark planned the release effort. (AP)

Tasmanian devils are released into the wild at Barrington Tops, Australia. Conservation group Aussie Ark planned the release effort. (AP)

Tasmanian devil pups search for food in their enclosure at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. (AP)

Tasmanian devil pups search for food in their enclosure at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. (AP)

Children help release Tasmanian devils at Barrington Tops, Australia. Tasmanian devils are fierce. But they help clean up the world by getting rid of dead animal carcasses. (AP)

Children help release Tasmanian devils at Barrington Tops, Australia. Tasmanian devils are fierce. But they help clean up the world by getting rid of dead animal carcasses. (AP)

Aussie Ark is releasing the devils in mainland Australia. The animals won’t get the dangerous devil facial tumor disease from other devils there. (AP)

Aussie Ark is releasing the devils in mainland Australia. The animals won’t get the dangerous devil facial tumor disease from other devils there. (AP)

Tasmanian Devils Come Back

Posted: January 1, 2021

“Welcome home, ya feisty, meat-eating maniacs!”

That’s an appropriate greeting for these Tasmanian devils. A group of the aggressive carnivores is moving back to the Australian mainland for the first time in thousands of years.

Eleven devils were freed from round, white cages this fall. They began exploring their new home—the nearly 1,000-acre Barrington Tops wildlife refuge. Fossils show that Tasmanian devils died out in mainland Australia about 3,000 years ago. What wiped them out? It may have been dry weather, a growing human population, competition with other predators such as dingo dogs—or all three. The remaining devils moved to Tasmania, an island state of Australia.

“Seeing those devils released into a wild landscape—it’s a really emotional moment,” says Liz Gabriel. She is the director of conservation group Aussie Ark, which led the release effort.

Tasmanian devils once had the name Sarcophilus satanicus, which means “Satanic flesh-lover.” The title seemed to fit. The creatures’ appearance may remind you of a puppy. But unlike puppies, Tasmanian devils are zero fun to be around. They stink. They fight constantly. They easily crush the skulls of their prey. Their 42 sharp teeth slice through bone, muscle, and fur. And the devils make horrifying sounds. To the first Europeans in Tasmania, the Tasmanian devils’ shrieks sounded like demons. 

Tasmanian devils may not be pleasant . . . but they’re important. These critters can control groups of invasive species such as foxes and feral (wild) cats. They also clean up the world by getting rid of dead animal carcasses. That’s needed to keep diseases from spreading. For these reasons, Tasmanian devils have been protected in Australia since 1941.

The rowdy little mammals have had many troubles over the years. But the worst came in the 1990s. Devils started getting a cancer called devil facial tumor disease. The sickness passes between devils through their bites. It creates large tumors that prevent them from eating. The cancer wiped out most devils, shrinking their population from 140,000 to as few as 20,000.

How do you fix a problem that big? Researchers decided to build a backup population of devils. They collect animals that do not have the cancer. They release them in Australia where they won’t catch the disease from other devils. The animals’ new gigantic enclosures feel like the wild.