Most animals are either highly social, or fiercely independent, coming together only to mate. Tasmanian devils are a rare exception falling somewhere in between, which makes their interactions particularly interesting to science. New research has shown that despite their semi-solitary nature, early friendships are enduring and vital to devil growth. The discovery will assist with captive breeding programs designed to prevent the devil’s extinction. It’s also adorable.
The Tasmanian devil is threatened by a transmissible cancer known as devil facial tumor disease. Terrible as the disease is, and tragic as it would be to lose the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, the race to save the devil has been a scientific stimulus. Scientists studying the exceptional nature of the tumor hope what they learn will provide insights into human cancers. Similarly, intense study of devilish social behavior may help us understand other animals.
“In the wild, when baby devils leave their mums, we believe they all socialize together,” Parrott said in an emailed statement. She told IFLScience the devils don’t just bond with their siblings, but with other devils weaned around the same time. All devils are born in late summer, facilitating bonding. However, the breeding team didn’t know the optimum size for these devil packs.
Parrott divided the 18 devils born last year into groups of three. After these had time to bond she amalgamated some trios, but not others.
Although devils played with newly introduced fellows, like the three musketeers they remained closest to the other members of their original triad. Parrott explained that even though young devils have their own dens, they also engage in friendly sleep-overs, and months after groups combined, still preferred to share with their two original friends.
In addition, the devils whose group size was expanded played more and showed healthier growth patterns. Consequently, all 20 devils born this year will be housed in larger groups from the start.
Adult devils are not particularly social, only spending extended time with their young, except during the mating season. However, Parrott told IFLScience, “They can smell a dead animal from miles away.” Many devils may congregate at the carcass, and despite some sparring over who gets to eat first, they largely co-operate in pulling the food apart. Despite then each having the opportunity to take their meal home with them, most devils stick around and eat sociably, renewing the bonds that formed in childhood, a dynamic Parrott said is almost unknown in other species.
These gatherings for feasts may contribute to the recent discovery many devil litters have multiple fathers, suggesting that around mating time devils get very sociable indeed.