Anyone who has watched a lot of Saturday morning television likely has seen Taz, the voracious Tasmanian devil of Looney Tunes fame, a loud and voracious presence.
While Taz thrives in the cartoon, in the wild the species isn’t doing so well. About 20 years ago, a mysterious illness caused its population to dive.
Conservationists are scrambling to save the animals and educate the public about them. As part of that effort, Yindi and Jannali, two female Tasmanian devils, recently arrived at the St. Louis Zoo, where researchers are studying how they adjust to life in captivity.
The noise the two small animals make might surprise some people.
“Can you imagine being in a dense [Tasmanian] forest in 1880 hearing that noise and you’re a European settler?” asked Alice Seyfried, the Fred Saigh Curator of the Emerson Children’s Zoo at the St. Louis Zoo. “You would think it was the devil.”
Each of the sisters is about the size of a small dog, with black fur and white stripes.
“When they’re up and about, they’re always moving,” Seyfried said. “They’re always looking for trouble. They have a temperament similar to a wolverine or a honey badger. So it’s go go go — investigate, investigate, investigate.”
On a recent day, only one of the Tasmanian devils was running around. The other rested on the ground in the back of the exhibit.
“Yindi is definitely more outgoing and curious,” zookeeper Shannon Santangelo said. “She likes to check out everything, whereas Jannali is more shy. She takes her time to get used to things.”
The last time the zoo had Tasmanian devils was about 30 years ago. The difference now is that the species is in trouble.
The wild Tasmanian devil is only found in Tasmania, an island that’s part of Australia. In the mid-1990s, their numbers began to drop drastically, by about 90 percent in some areas, due to an unusual cause: a contagious cancer called facial tumor disease.
“It causes the animals to get enormous tumors in the area of their face and mouth,” Seyfried said. “Sadly, the animals don’t actually don’t die from cancer. They die from starvation. The tumors become so large they’re not able to eat.”
Cells from the tumors can spread through saliva and sex, and since Tasmanian devils bite each other while feeding, breeding or even socializing, it wasn’t long until this strange cancer became rampant.
The Australian government responded by creating the Save the Tasmanian Devil program. The initiative first focused on building a healthy, quarantined population of Tasmanian devils. When it reached about 500 animals, some of them were sent to zoos to raise public awareness.
The St. Louis Zoo is one of six zoos in the United States to receive a pair of them.
Researchers at the zoo are monitoring the devils’ transition closely. Endocrinologist Corinne Koslowsky examines their droppings to measure a stress hormone called cortisol.
“Just like people, when animals come to a new place or home, we can initially see an increase in stress levels,” Koslowsky said. “By understanding how those levels decrease over time, it gives us an idea of how they’re adjusting and being more comfortable at the zoo and their surroundings.”
Scientists are also looking at how they’re behaving. Twice a day, a staff member watches them from a small observing booth that’s connected to the back of the exhibit.
“It’s easier to observe in here because you’re not by the public,” zookeeper Brittany Ash said. “That way, you’re not really distracted with questions, which is kind of nice because you’re paying more attention to the animals.”
On a spreadsheet, she jots down codes that help describe how much the devils move, what toys they play with and something that researcher Eli Baskir calls “genital dragging.”
“You ever see a dog scoot? It’s kind of similar,” said Baskir, who’s running the behavioral study. “They kind of put their butts down and scoot across the ground."
Ash said her observations – if one animal was pacing in the same spot, for example — could lead to more research.
“We don’t really know whether or not they’re agitated or if maybe they’re just inspecting that area,” Ash said. “But hopefully with a study we can find out, if they’re in that area for a certain amount of time, does that mean there’s something interesting in there? And why that behavior is occurring.”
Scientists hope their research will help them better understand the species. Meanwhile, as a part of the Save the Tasmanian Devil program, the zoo has funded conservation efforts in Australia — for example, a project that puts radio-tracking collars on wild Tasmanian devils.
Yindi and Jannali will live the rest of their lives as ambassadors for their wild counterparts in Tasmania. As visitors get to know them, the zoo is building a community that cares about them.