THE DEVILS IN THE DETAILS

1 July 2021

    Once upon a time (about a month ago), on the slopes of Mount Maria, on the island of the same name in Tasmania, two devils sat soaking up the early morning sun. No, I’m not talking about devil devils – evil fiends found in both religious and secular fairytales. The two creatures enjoying the daylight after a long night of foraging for food were Tasmanian devils, a native Australian marsupial, and one of the few species that is carnivorous. One was an aged (by devil standards – five years old) female, the other was one of her younger sons (but middle-aged for a devil, at a year and a half). The son had his eyes closed, and seemed to be dozing. The mother was awake, but had a dreamy, far-off look in her eyes that suggested her mind was somewhere else.

   “Sometimes, I wish I had been able to see our homeland before I die,” she said, more to herself than to her son.

   “Homeland?” He hadn’t been asleep. “I thought you had been born here.”

   She chuckled. “Oh, I was, as were your father, your grandparents, my grandparents, and maybe one more generation – the generations go by pretty quickly for devils. But this isn’t really Devil Country. Our ancestors were brought to this island by humans about ten years ago. Did you know that the island used to be a penal colony?”

   “I don’t even know what a penal colony is.”

   “It’s where human keep their convicts…”

   “I don’t even know what a convict is.”

   Mama devil sighed. “Sometimes, I forget how limited your education is. Well, a convict is a human that other humans don’t want around them, so they put them in places – penal colonies – where they can’t get in the way of other humans, and where they aren’t free to go where they might want to go.

   “But where this thought was headed – before I was so rudely interrupted – is that this island is our penal colony, too. We – well, our ancestors – were brought here and left, not able to get back to their original home. We’re convicts, as far as the rest of the devil species is concerned.”

    Junior thought about that a moment. “Okay, I guess I get all that, but why didn’t they want us where we were?”

   “Okay, the analogy breaks down a little bit there. As I understand it – from the stories passed down through devil generations – the humans actually thought they were doing us a favor. There was a disease spreading through the devil populations that was killing us in such numbers that the humans thought our species might actually become extinct. They thought if they brought some of us here – some of us who were still healthy – we might survive the disease, and maybe become the only population of devils left in the entire world.”

   “And are we the only devils left in the whole world?”

   “Well, the humans were wrong on that one. We devils are a tougher breed than they thought. I hear we fought off the disease by ourselves, and now there are tons of us in Tasmania. Charitably, I guess we can give the humans credit for good intentions, but they ‘solved a problem’ that didn’t exist.”

    The two devils sat quietly for a few moments, contemplating. Then, Mama spoke again. “Did you know that we aren’t the only exiles on this island? Most of the animals we see don’t belong here, any more than we do.”

   “Like, who doesn’t belong?”

   “The little pademelons that are everywhere are natives, but the ______[1] are all foreigners, like us.”

   “Were they in danger, too?””

   “No, I don’t think so. They are all fairly rare, and somebody thought it would be safer for the species if new populations were established.”

   “Interesting,” said Junior. They quietly contemplated, again. And again, Mama sighed, sadly.

   “I do wish I’d seen our home country.”

   “Mom, you’re scaring me! Are you sick? Are you dying?”

   She laughed. “No, I’m fine, but I’m five years old, and that’s old age for a devil. I’ll go pretty soon. Nobody knows when, and I’m generally satisfied with my life. I’ve made my contributions to the devil world – like having you, for example – and I have no real complaints. It’s just that, sometimes, I feel this tugging at my heart – a nostalgia for something I’ve never known, but feel a connection with.”

   She brushed away a tear, sat up straight, and adopted a determined air. “And speaking of doing one’s part, you’re almost two years old, which means you’ll soon be doing your own business to keep the species alive. I suspect you’ll have a lot of youngsters, even though you are ugly as sin.”

   “Mom! What a thing to say!”

   “Nothing personal, my son. All of us devils are pretty ugly. You know the old saying, ‘a face only a mother could love?’”

   “No.”

   “Regardless, we are ugly in face, and all other features, as well. If procreation was dependent on attractive looks, we devils would have been extinct long ago. What we possess is amazing fecundity and a brash randiness that overcomes whatever romantic shortfall we might possess. We don’t need romance…”

   “Mom…”

   “On the other hand, I remember the first time I saw your father.” She sighed. “Oh, he had something – an animal magnetism – that really got me…”

   “Mom!”

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images

   

   That got her attention. “Mom, can we talk about something other than your sex life, or my sex life.”

   “Certainly, dear. What did you have in mind?”

   “How about food?”

   “Food? What about food?”

   “Well, Mom, I know that we are principally scavengers and carrion eaters, and that’s okay. Most of what we get is good (although I do remember a time or two when the carrion was just a little too carrion-y). But do you remember those little penguins that we used to get – fresh killed, juicy, and just the right size for a meal? They were so good!

   “But not available, anymore,” said Mom.

   “Well, what about those shearwaters that we dug out of their burrows – maybe not as good as penguin, but not bad.”

   “Pretty scarce, now,” said Mom.

   “Well, I miss them. What happened to them?”

   Mom looked at him a little oddly. “Somebody ate them.”

   “Somebody… You mean, us?”

   “Us, indeed.”

   “But how could we? There must have been thousands of them, and there are only – what? – one hundred of us.”

   “Well, my son, we devils are playing a part in one more classic example of what happens when humans introduce (accidentally or on purpose) alien animals or plants to islands. It almost always ends in disaster for the natives, and in this case we are the villains.”

   “What do you mean, classic example?”

   “It’s like this – or so I’ve been told, anyway – over time, animals and plants on islands develop in very specific ways to adapt to their location. They achieve very stable communities, but also very fragile ones. If anything happens to disrupt their situation, it can quickly turn disastrous.”

   “For example?” asked Junior.

   “Well, there are hundred of examples around the world. Take Hawaii, for example…”

   “Where’s Hawaii?”

   Mama pointed off to the north[2] “Way up there. Anyway, Hawaii had very rich and unique faunas and floras. When rats accidentally arrived on the islands from sailing ships…”

   “What’s a rat?”

   “A little mammal that humans don’t like very much, and that is very fond of birds’ eggs and such. The rats began to be a real problem, so humans introduced mongooses…”

   “What’s a mongoose?”

   “Another mammal, and one that apparently likes to eat rats. The humans brought them to eat the rats – which they did, but they also ate every other creature that could find. Most of Hawaii’s native birds proved very vulnerable to mongoose predation, and bird numbers decreased rapidly. Humans couldn’t get rid of the mongooses, so they had a double problem. Over time, they brought other foreign animals and plants to the islands, completely changing the environment. Eventually, most of Hawaii’s native birds were extinct, and the rest in perilous straits.

   “Another example: Aleutian Canada geese nested on small islands in Alaska… Okay, before you ask, Alaska is even farther up there.” (She “pointed” north.) “Geese are birds, and – anticipating your next interruption – Arctic foxes are mammals that, like us, can play hell with ground-nesting birds. Humans brought them to the islands where they had never lived before, and where the geese had not been subjected to any similar predator. It wasn’t long before the geese – like our penguins – were becoming scarce. The easy food source made it possible for the foxes to rapidly increase, which put more stress on the goose population, and they were well on their way to extinction.  Luckily, the humans realized their error before the geese were entirely gone. They removed the foxes, and the goose population was able to grow, again.”

   “That’s cool.”

   “Yes, it is. The goose-fox story is very much like our penguin-devil tale. Only, the humans didn’t fully realize what was happening here on this island, and they didn’t act to save the penguins.”

   “Not cool.”

   “Not cool, indeed. And, our story isn’t over, yet. In only ten years, our numbers have grown from less than 30 to well over 100. We’re still growing, and we’re going to wipe out the shearwater population soon, I would think. There’s not enough carrion on the island to sustain us, so we’ll start eating the other mammals. We can’t keep increasing while our food supply continues to decrease, so what happens?”

   “What does happen?’ asked Junior.

   “I’m not sure, but maybe the answer is in another story going on here. We’re not the only ‘bad guys’ upsetting the island environment. All the introduced mammals have made big changes in the vegetation of the island. The humans think that there are now too many plant-eating mammals on the island, and they have been ‘culling’ them.”

   “What does ‘culling’ mean?”

   “It means they have been removing some of them.”

   “Removing?”

   “Like, killing them. But that’s been objected to by other humans, and they’ve had to reduce the use of that ‘solution.’ I don’t know what they’re going to do in the future.”

   Junior was quiet for a few moments. “Would they ‘cull’ us?”

   “No, I don’t think so, because we’re still considered an endangered species, even if we’re not wanted here.”

   “So, what’s the alternative?”

   “I don’t know. Maybe now that the devil disease isn’t as bad as they thought, they might just move us off the island, back to where we came from.”

   Mama paused, as a sudden realization came to her. “Back to where we came from… Can you imagine? I’ve wanted so badly to see our homeland before I die. Could it really happen? Could we really go home?”

 

   (We’ll leave the two devils on their sunny hillside on Maria Island, contemplating the possibility.)

 

***

 

   Editorial comments: As has been pointed out [Footnote 1], Devil is a tough language to learn and understand. We don’t have anybody on our staff who is proficient in the language, so some of the above is a rather free translation of what the devils actually said. We don’t think we made any real errors, but Devil is a “romance language” (like French or Spanish), while English is more stoic, like German. Thus, we probably lost some of the nuances, and presented a narrative more boring than what other devils would have heard.

   An interesting note: Any of you who have studied history, or attempted to write a family genealogy, know how “family lore” can change as it passes through the generations. It’s like that game of Telephone: you sit in a circle; one person whispers something to the person next, then that person in turn whispers what they think they heard to their neighbor. This continues around the circle until back to the originator. They then compare what was originally said with what was reported at the end. The results can be hilariously wrong. In the same way, “history” can be amazingly garbled.

   Somewhat surprisingly, therefore, we find that the Devils’ handed-down history is very close to actual happenings. Beginning in the late 1960s, non-native species were brought to Maria Island, presumably because their populations were somewhat threatened on the Australian mainland. The disastrous effects of most island introductions were well-known by that time, so it isn’t clear how they justified the program. Nevertheless, when they began to see that carrying capacity of the habitat was being exceeded by the aliens, they took steps to control the damage.

   When, in 2012 and 2013, some 25 to 30 Tasmanian devils were released on the island, the possible loss of seabirds was acknowledged. The worry that facial tumor disease was threatening the entire devil population with extinction presumably outweighed any concerns about wildlife already on Maria Island. The fact that a population of some 6000 little penguins disappeared within seven or eight years, yet no one seems to have noticed, suggests that the results of the devil introduction were not closely followed.[3] It was reported as early as 2016 that the tumors in devils were unlikely to be an extinction threat.[4] Further evidence was published in 2020.[5] If someone had been paying closer attention, it’s possible that something could have been done to prevent the penguin disaster.

   Private researchers have suggested that the government remove devils from Maria Island to prevent further harm to shearwaters or other species. We haven’t seen anything that suggests this is being considered.

***

   “(Although islands) comprise just 5.3% of the Earth’s terrestrial area, they have hosted 75% of known bird, mammal, amphibian and reptile extinctions since 1500, and currently support 36% of species in these groups that are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Many of these animals are threatened as a direct consequence of invasive alien species, particularly non-native terrestrial mammals. Invasive mammals, particularly cats (Felis catus) and rats (Rattus spp.), are the most damaging invasive species known on islands. Eradication of invasive mammals from islands is a proven conservation tool, with clear evidence of subsequent native species recovery. More than 1,200 invasive mammal eradications have been attempted on islands worldwide, with an average success rate of 85%. In addition, larger, more remote and technically challenging islands are being successfully cleared of invasive species populations each year.”[6]

 

   We don’t need any further proof that messing with island ecosystems is a bad idea. The devil introduction was unique in that – as Mama Devil pointed out - it was the endangered species that was the “bad guy,” rather than the victim, but the concept is the same. It might be possible yet to remove the devils from Maria Island, preserve the remaining shearwaters, and perhaps allow little penguins to populate the island once again. Probably, it couldn’t be accomplished in time for Mama Devil to realize her dream of seeing the “home country,” but maybe her children or grandchildren would.


[1] Mama rattled off a lot of words that wouldn’t mean anything to you – and Devil is a tough language, so you probably wouldn’t be able to figure out what she was saying,, anyway. In English, she was referring to forester kangaroos, Bennett’s wallabies, Flinders Island wombats, Cape Barren geese, and Tasmanian hens.

[2] If you remember what devils look like, you’ll see that it would be impossible for one of them to “point,” in the way we think of the concept. Mama Devil made some gesture that another devil would realize was directing their attention in a northward direction.

[3] As reported in The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) on 6 June 2015, there was some early concern about the increasing predation on penguins by devils, and 20 artificial burrows were constructed to improve the chances of penguin survival. However, we couldn’t find any follow-up in the news, or in government or scientific reports, which seems to confirm that nobody was paying attention. 

[4] R. Pye et al. 206. Demonstration of immune responses against devil facial tumour disease in wild Tasmanian devils. Biological Letters 12(10).

[5] A. H. Patton et al. 2020. A transmissible cancer shifts from emergence to endemism in Tasmanian devils. Science 370(6522).

   E. Pennisi. 2020. Tasmanian devils claw their way back from extinction. Science 11 December 2020, page 1257.

[6] Holmes N. D., D. R. Spatz, S. Oppel, B. Tershy, D. A. Croll, B. Keitt et al.  2019. Globally important islands where eradicating invasive mammals will benefit highly threatened vertebrates. PLoS ONE 14(3): e0212128.


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