Tasmanian Devil sisters find each other in the wild again after two years apart
By Kyrsten Stringer on May 26, 2021
When Aussie Ark Rangers noticed a pair of Tasmanian Devils hanging out in their Barrington Tops wild sanctuary— scavenging together, scaring larger males away from carrion, sharing the same den— they had no idea they were witnessing behavior that has rarely been seen in devils before.
Data from the devils’ trackers revealed something extraordinary:
They were sisters. And they hadn’t seen one another in more than two years.
This is a revelation that would have been impossible without Aussie Ark’s incredible initiative to rewild the Tasmanian Devil on mainland Australia, where they had been absent for 3,000 years until last year.
“Bitsy and Bonnie, they're living as wild devils. We're getting data that is almost unachievable to get from the wild in Tasmania, which is the only other place you'd be able to see it,” says Hayley Shute, life sciences manager at Aussie Ark. “These sisters must've had some recognition of each other, otherwise, it'd be a massive coincidence. There's something about each other that they're drawn to.”
Bitsy and Bonnie spent the first ten months of their lives growing alongside their brothers under their mother’s careful watch in an Aussie Ark breeding yard. Tasmanian Devils start life hairless, pink and blind; they’re so small and helpless at birth that four of them can fit on an Australian 20 cent coin at once. It was after they’d grown into little bundles of dark fur, whiskers and claws ready to take on the world on their own, that Bitsy and Bonnie, 10 months old, were separated into different creche yards.
Shute explains that creche yards are like preschools for Tasmanian Devils. They help ease the transition for the young devils out of the breeding yards and prepare them for life in the wild. It’s in the creche yards where Tasmanian Devils “learn how to be a devil.” They learn how to feed and fend for themselves, and how to interact with other devils — all things crucial for the behavioral development and growth of happy, healthy devils.
After two years apart, separated in their creche yards, the sisters found each other again in the wild.
The effort to bring Tasmanian Devils back to mainland Australia means that Aussie Ark is in a unique position to be able to learn more about the behaviors of Tasmanian Devils in the wild. They will continue to monitor Bitsy and Bonnie to see how their relationship develops over time, and are excited by the possibility there are more pair bonds to uncover and observe between other wild devils.
“Monitoring behaviors like this is so exciting,” says Shute, “The return of the devil to mainland Australia is huge, and better yet it’s working.”
As “vacuum cleaners” of the bush, Tasmanian Devils play a crucial role in the ecosystems where they live; they eat the old decaying food and carcasses of dead animals that collect on the forest floor over time, ultimately preventing the spread of disease and helping to keep the entire ecosystem healthy. They also act as a buffer between small animals and invasive species; while Tasmanian Devils are predators themselves, their presence deters aggressive hunting by foxes and cats, which gives small mammals more of a fighting chance.
Thanks to Bitsy and Bonnie and the groundbreaking work of our friends at Aussie Ark, we also know now that Tasmanian Devils sometimes take care of each other too. That’s pretty wild.
Kyrsten Stringer is a Senior Writer with Lonely Whale and Re:wild specializing in storytelling techniques designed to immerse the reader in the narrative. Kyrsten is passionate about breaking down barriers to nature through the power of inclusive language, and about the power of words to galvanize action in conservation — for wildlife and wildlands, for the ocean, and for people everywhere. Her home base is Saskatchewan, Canada.