On the Origin of Strangeness

Parents From Hell

18 July 2017

Ah, Tasmania. The butt of jokes from smog-loving mainlanders and regularly omitted from the world map, it’s Australia’s often forgotten state. Luckily, it has one famous resident to remind the world of its existence: the Tasmanian devil. Once a nuisance to European settlers protecting their livestock, this furry, squat little scavenger has become a Tasmanian icon and protected species. Yet while the name ‘devil’ may at first seem unfitting, the family lives and breeding practises of Tasmanian devils, do tend to more closely resemble Nightmare on Elm Street than The Brady Bunch.

Initially, the reputation of this awkward yet adorable marsupial as a ‘devil’ appears inappropriate. The Tasmanian devil’s thick neck and large torso, which gives it one of the strongest bites in the animal kingdom, also causes an irregular, waddling gait, allowing for a cute and far from menacing first impression. While it is the largest meat-eating marsupial, its carnivorous nature is also not always obvious, with baby devils, or ‘imps’, often spotted sunbaking alongside the lizards they should be eating. When a devil is stressed, it produces a bad odour and opens its mouth in a wide ‘yawn’. If challenged by another devil, they try to scare them off with a staccato sneeze, but this causes them to lose their balance more often than it intimidates their opponent.

But, as is common knowledge to the owner of any puppy, kitten or toddler, appearances are deceiving. Tasmanian devils were so named because of their rowdy mealtimes – when they gather around a carcass, they hiss, growl and shriek. They use Trump’s campaign strategy – the loudest wins the spoils. However, their cantankerous feeding habits are just the beginning of their devilish traits.

Their breeding habits also reveal the devil’s jealous and possessive nature. After courtship, the male invites the female into his ‘den’ (which already sounds like the beginning of a bad horror movie). The morning after, he thwarts her attempts to ditch their one-night stand, by viciously guarding her for over a week, preventing her from leaving his den or even eating. Despite this attempt to prevent infidelity, the female often escapes. It is not unusual for devil litters to contain offspring from four or five fathers.

After a three-week gestation period, the mother gives birth to 30 babies. Deaf, blind, and smaller than a raisin, they battle through thick fur to the safety of their mother’s pouch. In that warm, cosy sanctuary are four teats. Unfortunately, nature messed up the maths on this one: only the four babies that reach the teats first secure their place in the pouch. The others unsuccessfully search for nipples until they die. They may even become a tasty snack for their mother.

Unfortunately, Google failed to satisfactorily answer my question ‘Why do Tasmanian devils have too many babies?’ The only explanation offered was that producing jelly-bean sized offspring is not particularly energy intensive, and so is not a disadvantage to the mother. Moreover, the race to the nipple ensures that only the fastest imps survive – a useful trait later in life when racing other scavengers to a food source.

Sadly, we risk losing the wonders (or horrors) of Tasmanian devil reproduction if we do not combat devil facial tumour disease, an infectious cancer that has obliterated 70 per cent of the devil population since 1996. The disease spreads when tumour cells are passed on through bites, which is only possible because the devil population has limited genetic diversity. Because every devil’s cells look similar, the immune system fails to recognise the cancer as a foreign invader, allowing fatal tumours to spread unchecked. Hopefully a vaccine is successful soon, so we don’t lose these fascinating creatures.

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