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Tassie devils back from the brink in the wild

Cameron Whiteley, March 9, 2021 6:45PM Mercury

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Tasmanian devil numbers in the Tasmanian bush have declined by about two-thirds but the future is looking brighter for the much-loved marsupial. Picture: Aussie Ark media_cameraTasmanian devil numbers in the Tasmanian bush have declined by about two-thirds but the future is looking brighter for the much-loved marsupial. Picture: Aussie Ark


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The population of Tasmanian devils in the wild has declined by about two-thirds since a deadly facial tumour* disease emerged but the immediate outlook for the much-loved marsupial* remains positive, a new study has found.

Research published this week in the journal Ecology Letters estimates there are about 17,000 devils left in the wild, compared to about 53,000 in 1996 when the disease was discovered.

Wildlife ecologist Dr Calum Cunningham, from the University of Tasmania’s School of Natural Sciences, said the study tracked changes in the devil population over the past 35 years, examining data from field work and trapping surveys.

“Our models forecast for the next 10 years we’ll see a slowing in the decline, and the population is expected to plateau* within the next 10 years,” he said.

“It’s a pretty massive population decline we’ve seen over the last 25 years but compared to what we thought 10 years ago, the outlook for the devil is definitely more positive.”

devils media_cameraNight vision of a Tasmanian devil in the wild, taken during the study by the University of Tasmania. Picture: Calum Cunningham

Dr Cunningham, who was part of the study, said about 13,000 devils were forecast to be living in the wild by 2035.

“We no longer think the devil is at a short-term risk of extinction*,” Dr Cunningham said.

“The devils have proven themselves to be very resilient* and they are hanging in there right across Tasmania.”

Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is a cancer that is spreading among Tasmanian devil populations. It causes small sores or lumps in and around the devil’s mouth. These quickly develop into large tumours on the face and neck. Once the cancer becomes visible, it is almost always fatal*.

15/02/2004 Tasmanian Devil  with a mystery cancer which has wiped out up to 90 percent of populations in some areas. media_cameraDevil facial tumour disease first appeared in Tasmanian devils in 1996.

The study found devils were most abundant* in the state’s east, while the only populations free of the disease were believed to be in Tasmania’s far northwest.

Dr Cunningham said stopping the other causes of mortality*, such as devils being killed on the roads, should be a priority.

“It’s probably the second biggest cause of devil deaths and that’s something we can really do to improve the outlook for devils,” he said.

“Longer-term, devils are showing some glimmers of hope, they seem to be rapidly evolving* their capacity to tolerate* the disease or to even beat the disease.

“Recovering the devil is very important from both the perspective of the devil but also because of the ecological* role it plays in Tasmania.

“Some of our research has shown devils do quite a good job of reducing cat numbers and removing carrion (decaying flesh of dead animals).

“Any conservation effort of devils is not just for devils but for the good of the ecosystem.”

(FILES) This file photo taken on May 2, 2007 shows two Tasmanian devils in captivity as part of a breeding project at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in Taranna. Australia's Tasmanian devil was listed as endangered on May 21, 2008 due to a contagious and deadly cancer which threatens to wipe out the carnivorous marsupial. AFP PHOTO / FILES / Anoek DE GROOT media_cameraThese two Tasmanian devils were part of a captive breeding project at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park in Taranna. Picture: AFP


  • tumour: a mass of diseased cells
  • marsupial: mammal that has a pouch
  • plateau: flatten out, not increase or decrease
  • extinction: the dying out of a species
  • resilient: able to withstand or recover quickly from difficulties
  • fatal: deadly
  • abundant: in large numbers
  • mortality: death
  • evolving: adapting to
  • tolerate: cope with
  • ecological: the relationship between living things and the environment


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  1. How many Tasmanian devils are estimated to be left in the wild?
  2. How many Tasmanian devils were there in the wild in 1996?
  3. What disease is blamed for the decline in Tasmanian devil populations?
  4. Which university conducted this research?
  5. What is the second biggest cause of Tasmanian devil deaths?


1. Reducing Road Deaths
Work with a classmate and formulate three ideas for how to reduce the number of Tassie Devils getting hit and killed on the roads. Outline what each idea requires and how it will help prevent road deaths.


Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Personal and social, Critical and creative thinking

2. Extension
Explain why you think Tassie devils are most abundant in the east of Tasmania, but the disease-free population seemed to be Tasmania’s far northwest?

Why is keeping the numbers of Tassie Devils up important for the ecosystem?

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking

Grammar and VCOP
The glossary of terms helps you to understand and learn the ambitious vocabulary being used in the article. Can you use the words outlined in the glossary to create new sentences?

Challenge yourself to include other VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation) elements in your sentence/s.

Have another look through the article, can you find any other Wow Words not outlined in the glossary?

Extra Reading in animals