A few weeks ago, I came across this fascinating snippet in the Portland Observer, referencing an article from 50 years ago.
Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Cliff Beauglehole, he is always spoken of very highly by long-term naturalists in the region, so it was great to come across his name, as well as a reference to one of this region’s species of “forgotten fauna” – the Tasmanian (or should I say Australian?) Devil.
While most mammal extinctions in this region of Australia happened over a relatively short period from about 110 years ago (things like Eastern Quolls, Tasmanian Pademelons, Bettongs, Toolache Wallaby), the Devil had the misfortune of being out-competed (so conventional scientific wisdom says) by the Dingo on the mainland in an extinction process that may have only been completed a short time before Europeans arrived. (By the way, a short time in environmental terms is hundreds of years).
Why do I say unfortunately? Because…. looking back to the way Australia was 200 years ago often becomes the surrogate goal for environmental management (hence we call what should be considered the Australian Devil, the Tasmanian Devil), but what if we are missing the bigger picture?
Here is some food for thought….
- Devils and their ancestors evolved on the mainland for millions of years, only going missing eventually (hundreds of years ago) after Dingoes arrived some 4-5000 years ago.
- In Tasmania, Devils have happily co-existed with a range of other small mammals now long-extinct on the mainland. The only mammal to become extinct on Tassie is the Thylacine… and we all know why that happened.
- Where Devils are declining as a result of facial tumor disease, there is anecdotal evidence of increasing cat numbers and a decline in other native wildlife. Devils seem to be suppressing this non-native predator, and thereby protecting other small mammal species. (Predator relationships in ecosystems are extremely complex – for instance, just because a predator eats things, doesn’t mean that all potential prey become less abundant in their presence).
- The Dingo has now been largely eliminated from a significant swathe of south-eastern Australia, ironically making this part of the country more like it used to be when Devils roamed the land (in terms of competition). Only now there is no top-order marsupial carnivore to regulate our ecosystems, and the next nearest thing, Tiger Quolls, are gone from SA and in extremely low numbers in SW Victoria. To think that devils were here and doing this job until a relatively short time ago…
The bones in these caves tell a fascinating story – don’t you think?