Give the Devil His Due | Science | Smithsonian
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Give the Devil His Due

Blame Bugs Bunny and a nasty yawn for the Tasmanian devil's bad rap

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"Ugly" and "murderous" are two of many uncomplimentary epithets often hurled at the spaniel-size Tasmanian devil—and that's not even mentioning their unpleasantly ever-present cartoon caricature Taz. Yet, as writer Derek Grzelewski discovers, just seeing these reclusive marsupials in real life is far harder than their popular image would suggest.

Working under cover of night, devils are effective predators and scavengers on their native island of Tasmania. The bite of a devil packs the power of an animal four times its size, and devils are able to eat up to 40 percent of their body weight in half an hour. When frightened, their furless ears turn red and they yawn, exposing fearsome teeth. Combined with unearthly, high-pitched screeches as they fight each other over mates or food, such habits have earned devils their name and a hated reputation. For years, they were considered vermin in their own land, hunted almost to extinction.

Today, with better protection, as many as 150,000 devils roam the countryside. Still, their natural wariness makes devil sightings very difficult, so Tasmanian entrepreneurs have set up devil restaurants where tourists can pay about $20 to watch devils tear into a carcass at night. Though hardly as exotic as Bugs Bunny's cartoon foe, devils are finally proving to be star attractions in their own right.

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