Non-Tassie Devils

18 September, 2011

A friendly Tasmanian Devil, <i>Sarcophilus laniarius harrisii</i>
A friendly Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus laniarius harrisii
Image: Wayne McLean
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Question: Did Tasmanian Devils (or their ancestors) live outside of Tasmania?

Answer: The short answer is yes – the animal we call the Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus laniarius, did once call mainland Australia home.

Fossils show that different Devil species lived in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. Although only one species survives today, a number of 'prehistoric' Devils lived on mainland Australia, dating back several million years – the oldest was a precursor to the Devil called Glaucodon, which probably shared an ancestry between Quolls and the modern-day Devil.

The only evidence of this animal is two jaws found near Ballarat and Geelong. After this, the trail goes a little cold in the Devil family tree. But eventually, after a few millennia, the genus Sarcophilus appears, first represented by Sarcophilus moornaensis, known from a fossil found in New South Wales.

More recently came the 'giant' extinct Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus laniarius laniarius, which was actually the first of the Devils to be scientifically described. The living Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus laniarius harrisii, is actually considered a dwarf subspecies of this giant form.

When these giants became extinct, the surviving 'dwarf' Tasmanian Devils lived on both mainland Australia and Tasmania – the two landmasses were connected by a land bridge. Although persisting in Tasmania today, their subsequent extinction on mainland Australia may have been a result of competition with the Dingo, which arrived on the mainland less than 10 000 years ago.

Comments (5)

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Andrew Kuhlmann 7 June, 2012 12:54
It's great to know that there were a number of 'Devil' species in the past. Do you know what habitats the living Tassie Devil would have lived in during it's time on the mainland?
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Discovery Centre 7 June, 2012 17:01

Hi Andrew - good question! The fossil remains of Sarcophilus laniarus have been found in a number of localities on mainland Australia, so it's likely that they lived in a varity of forested habitats. I appreciate this is a fairly vague answer, but it is difficult to say exactly what the habitats were like given the natural bias of conditions required for fossilisation. Fossilised 'Devil' remains are known from cave remains (i.e. animals that presumably fell into a cave opening and became trapped, or were attracted by carrion of other similarly trapped animals, such as at the famous Narracoorte Caves site) or their remains are found in sedimentary settings (where the bones have been washed in from surrounding areas, such as at a site near Portland in Western Victoria).

Some interesting work on the impacts of climatic changes on mammals in the Pleistocene (particularly those from Narracoorte) has been done by Gavin Prideaux and colleagues, you can read an abstract on a paper on this subject here

Hope this helps!

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Jasmine Brickley 13 August, 2012 21:34
Hi, Would you be able to list or provide a detailed map of the various tasmanian devil fossil sites? I can't seem to find any lists of these places, only blurry maps, or broad descriptions. It would be incredibly helpful!
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Discovery Centre 27 August, 2012 16:23

Hi Jasmine - I'm sorry to say that I don't think any such map exists in detail - there's some nice maps in the book "Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australiasia" ed. P. Vickers-Rich et al. in the Chapter by Peter Murray (pp 1071-1164), but these show a variety of megafauna distributions on the maps rather than Sarcophilus exclusively. Feel free to contact us directly via Ask the Experts if you need any advice on specific resources that might be useful.

Christopher Madden 26 November, 2014 20:41
I wonder do Tasmanian Devils have any effect on the population of rabbits or feral cats.
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