Are Tasmanian devils fighting their way to extinction?

In relationship to body size, a Tasmanian devil's jaws are more powerful than a tiger's. See more marsupial pictures.
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­About 500 years ago, Tasmanian devils became extinct on the Australian continent and took up residence 125 miles (201 kilometers) away. Inhabiting only the island of Tasmania -- and a few zoos -- they live in relative isolation, feasting on the dead flesh of kangaroos, wallabies, possums and even fellow devils. Although they're the world's largest carnivorous marsupials, adult males measure barely a foot tall (30 centimeters) and weigh up to 26 pounds (12 kilograms). In relationship to their small body size, Tasmanian devils' jaws are more powerful than tigers', able to chew through entire bodies, including bone [­source: Owen and Pemberton].

But it wasn't those champion chops that earned Tasmanian devils their villainous name. The story goes that European settlers who came to Tasmania in the 19th century were terrified by the nocturnal mars­upial's piercing screams and thus christened them as devils. Indeed, Tasmanian devils are chatty creatures, with 11 distinct forms of vocalizations used to locate each other, defend themselves and communicate that they're peeved [source: Owen and Pemberton].

­Tasmanian devils are known for their belligerent nature. When irritated, their ears turn purple, and they release a loud shriek as a warning sign to back off. Their devil-eat-dev­il lifestyle begins at birth. Female Tasmanian devils produce litters of about 50 tiny babies. But there are just four nipples inside of her pouch, which means that only the strongest survive. After weaning the babies for a few months, the young devils must set out on their own, or risk being devoured by their mother. From there, they lead mostly solitary lives, except during mating season. And when adults encounter each other, it isn't a heartwarming reunion. Tasmanian devils fight each other readily, inflicting wounds -- and sometimes death.

That innate urge to brawl has become an increasing threat to the livelihood of the species in the past decade. The frequency of Tasmanian devil fighting hasn't risen, but the outcomes have turned far deadlier. Instead of a couple of nicks and scratches, a skirmish between two devils could leave behind a festering cancer that threatens to wipe out the Tasmanian devil population in 20 years.