Snarling Tasmanian Devils Arrive in USA

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Four Tasmanian devils have just moved into new San Diego Zoo digs, and are now the only Tasmanian devils at a U.S. zoo.

The snarling new residents consist of three males — Bradley, Bixby and De-Vos — along with one female, Usmar. They are in quarantine at the zoo until Oct. 24, when they will become the new stars in the Australian Outback exhibit.

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Back in Tasmania, this gregarious species lives in forest, woodland and agricultural areas. A deadly illness known as devil tumor facial disease, however, has been wiping out their population in the wild.

“The Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease is an unusual transmissible cancer that is thought to have only recently evolved in Tasmania,” Andrew Task, an associate professor in the department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Connecticut, told Discovery News. He and colleague Brandon Menzies have studied Tasmanian devils.

“(The disease) is spread by the devils biting each other during normal social interactions,” he continued. “The disease has 100 percent mortality and only a few resistant animals have been identified. Currently, captive breeding of unaffected animals is the best option for trying to save the population, which is believed to have been reduced by up to 70 percent in the past six years.”

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The San Diego Zoo has partnered with the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program based in Tasmania. The program is in the process of collaborating with zoos and research institutes around the world to save the endangered animals.

The four devils at the zoo are completely disease-free and, by all accounts, are quite a handful.

According to zoo staff, the devils give off a fierce snarl and high-pitched scream, which is heard just about every day. They do this around feeding time to establish dominance.

With a stretch of imagination, they look a little like the famous Warner Brothers cartoon Tasmanian devil, complete with flying spit and sharp teeth.

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Normally Tasmanian devils are nocturnal hunters, using their keen senses of smell and hearing to find prey or carrion. At the zoo, however, they’ll likely learn to take the “day shift” since they won’t have to work as hard to find dinner.

As for the future of these animals, Menzies said, “The most responsible course of action now would be to monitor the disease in the wild and maintain strong captive populations for possible reintroduction. There may still be resistant individuals in the wild.”

Photo: San Diego Zoo