The feisty Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a tough character for sure. The devil’s large head and neck allow it to generate the strongest bite per unit body mass of any extant mammal land predator. But since the early 1990s devils in their eponymous heartland have been threatened by devil facial tumour disease which has dramatically reduced the population and led to an endangered status in 2008. But while conservation bodies are making some way in ensuring the survival of the Devils in Tasmania, the Devils of mainland Australia are long-gone. It is generally accepted that they were spread across the continent in pleistocene times but went extinct through many local extinctions about 3000 years. As for the demise of Thylacines, dingoes are the main suspects.
Their presence in the Northern Territory is demonstrated only by a single fossil from near Darwin and depictions in rock art. I’m quite confident that the animal in the rock art image from the West Arnhem Land plateau is a Tasmanian Devil on the basis of a distinctive body shape, prominent whiskers and posture. The short tail is most persuasive. Tasmanian Devils are not spotted, while another carnivorous mammal, the northern quoll is spotted. But the Northern Quoll has a particularly long tail, tufted at the end. We can be fairly confident that the spots are only decorative in this image — unless of course we had a spotted sub-species of Devil in the north.
As with a lot of rock art, images are often overpainted and indeed the sequencing has been used to provide broad understanding of the chronology of changing styles over the 40,000 plus years since people first put ochre to rock. In this case it’s not easy to tell which came first, the Devil or the Goanna.
The image was recorded on a survey in Marrirn country last month and the excellent Devil drawing was made in Tasmania in 1880 by Louisa Ann Meredith.

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