How to catch a Tasmanian devil

by Dr Elspeth McLennan (Post-doc)

Tasmanian devils are nocturnal. We set traps during the day and overnight curious devils will come to investigate. The traps we use are made of strong PVC plastic fashioned into a cylinder with a spring trap door (see cover picture). The traps are baited with a devil’s favourite treat, a piece of fresh lamb or wallaby. The meat is tied onto the end of a string, fed through the trap, and tied to a pin which holds the door open.

When a devil comes investigating the smell of the meat, they walk to the end of the trap and take the bait. When the meat is pulled and eaten, the pin holding the door open is pulled free and the door swings shut. A second pin slides forward as the door closes and locks it. Devils spend the night in a cosy enclosed space with a full belly. The field biologists begin checking the traps as soon as the sun is up. As its daylight, we often find devils snoozing in their traps.

To perform a health check on the devil, we place a hessian sack over the opening of the trap, gently tilt the trap and the devil slides forward into the sack. The sack is used to keep the devil’s eyes covered to keep them calm making them easier to handle while we check them over. We take their weight, check their body condition, look for wounds and record pouch young in females. For populations suffering from devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), the disease status of each animal is also recorded. Once the devil has been processed, they are released. On a single trapping trip, we will often see the same devils a few times. The free food and somewhere to crash is clearly a good draw.


Dr Elspeth McLennan

Dr Elspeth McLennan (Post-doc) is working the on the Koala Genome Survey, investigating both neutral and functional diversity across the koala’s range to better understand the impacts of a changing climate. Elspeth has expertise in conservation genetics and using translocation and assisted colonisations as a conservation management tool.

Tasmanian devil cathelicidins exhibit anticancer activity against Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) cells

Type: Journal Article

Reference: Petrohilos, C., Patchett, A., Hogg, C.J. et al. Tasmanian devil cathelicidins exhibit anticancer activity against Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) cells. Science Report 13, 12698 (2023). doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-39901-0


The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is endangered due to the spread of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), a contagious cancer with no current treatment options. Here we test whether seven recently characterized Tasmanian devil cathelicidins are involved in cancer regulation. We measured DFTD cell viability in vitro following incubation with each of the seven peptides and describe the effect of each on gene expression in treated cells. Four cathelicidins (Saha-CATH3, 4, 5 and 6) were toxic to DFTD cells and caused general signs of cellular stress. The most toxic peptide (Saha-CATH5) also suppressed the ERBB and YAP1/TAZ signaling pathways, both of which have been identified as important drivers of cancer proliferation. Three cathelicidins induced inflammatory pathways in DFTD cells that may potentially recruit immune cells in vivo. This study suggests that devil cathelicidins have some anti-cancer and inflammatory functions and should be explored further to determine whether they have potential as treatment leads.


My Favorite Culture Shock: Australia’s Wildlife

by Meadhbh Molloy (PhD Student)

I remember when I learned about the Tasmanian devil and DFTD in my Conservation Medicine textbook as a new master’s student in Virginia, USA. Since I was a child, I loved learning about different animals from all over the world but admittedly, I did know little about the Tasmanian devil. I was inspired by the many amazing researchers that were working on their conservation. I kept thinking about the Tasmanian devil throughout my master’s program and thought that maybe…I can go to Australia…and research Tasmanian devils as well for my PhD (I remember my first Zoom meeting with Carolyn…I was so excited!). After many more Zoom meetings, proposal drafts, a scholarship offer (thank you American Australian Association!), and a pandemic, I finally arrived in Sydney in August 2022. While I was eagerly looking forward to the first time I would see a Tasmanian devil, I have some honorable mentions of the other wildlife I have seen.

The mammals. This is my favorite taxonomic group, so I was most excited to see the mammals of Australia. I’ve seen potoroos scampering about, fruit bats flying at dusk, koalas at a sanctuary in Brisbane, an echidna crossing the road near Royal National Park, and of course the iconic kangaroo grazing right by my camping site in Jervis Bay. The Virginia opossum is our only native marsupial in North America. I was delighted to see brushtail possums (the arguably cuter cousin) in trees and sidewalks in the city, and digging through our food while camping. We also have a mammal that likes to dig through our stuff at campsites- the American black bear. It’s ok! You can put all your food up in a “bear bag” and it (mostly) helps.

The spiders. When I was researching my move to Australia, I came across a blog post titled “Every American remembers their first huntsman spider”. I thought “oh, well I’ll be in a city, they probably don’t get that big, assuming they are even there!”. Wrong. Listen, I appreciate spiders and their ecological role. I know they are probably “more scared of me than I am of them”. That does not mean I was calm and collected when I saw my first huntsman on the bathroom floor. Back at home we have big spiders (mainly wolf) that roam around, but they are no match for a huntsman’s speed! While I’m still a little scared of spiders, my definition of what a large spider is has certainly changed.

All the birds! It’s hard to pick a favorite Australian bird, but I would have to go with the kookaburra (even though one stole the sausage right out of my hands at a barbecue). The first time I heard one, it was 5:30am and I thought a monkey was outside my apartment window. We also don’t have wild parrots where I am from, so my phone is now filled with photos of beautiful white cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets. I remember going on a walk around my new neighborhood within the first few days of arriving. I saw a magnificent bird and told my roommate, Kimberley, about it when I returned. The bird had long legs, a beautifully contrasting white and black body, and was strutting around a park. Upon showing her a photo she said “oh yeah, a bin chicken”.  A bin chicken? Not the nicest name. I now understand why they are called that.

I’ve seen many other amazing animals while traveling around Australia, including saltwater crocodiles near Port Douglas, stunning marine life while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, and even a camel when I visited Uluru (it was well-timed that I read “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson before my trip). I happened to feel particularly homesick when I went to Taronga Zoo on a nice spring day, only a couple months after I landed in Sydney. I arrived at the enclosure that I was most excited to see. I have waited a long time to come to Australia, and The Tasmanian devil has morphed from being the topic of one of my research chapters, to being a symbol of resilience and patience for my entire PhD. Immediately, the Tasmanian devil got up from a shady spot and walked across the enclosure to lie down in front of me. Did this little devil know it would be the first devil I would see in person, and knew the weight of this moment? Obviously not, it just wanted to sunbathe. Of all the animals I have seen so far, the Tasmanian devil remains to be my favorite. I look forward to seeing more of Australia’s wildlife before I return to the United States.


Meadhbh Molloy (PhD Student) is characterising the gut microbiome profile of Tasmanian devils at multiple locations across Tasmania

Assisted Colonisation as a Conservation Tool: Tasmanian Devils and Maria Island

Type: Book Chapter

Reference: Hogg, C., & Wise, P. (2022). Assisted Colonisation as a Conservation Tool: Tasmanian Devils and Maria Island. In M. Gaywood, J. Ewen, P. Hollingsworth, & A. Moehrenschlager (Eds.), Conservation Translocations (Ecology, Biodiversity and Conservation, pp. 476-483). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108638142.029


Tasmanian devils are endangered due to an infectious clonal cancer that has reduced populations by up to 80 per cent since it first arose in 1996. As part of a management strategy for the species, an island population was established through an assisted colonisation event on Maria Island
National Park. The original scope of the Maria Island population was to establish and maintain a disease-free population of devils. The island is now used as a source site for these trial releases of devils to mainland Tasmania populations. The 2012 release cohort to the island had a high degree of relatedness. However, through dedicated management strategies, including contraception and selective harvesting, this situation has been rectified and the Maria Island population now represents a genetically diverse group. Monitoring, using traditional methods of trapping and camera traps, in addition to genetic monitoring, has been essential to the establishment and maintenance of the Maria
Island population.

See all our publications HERE!

Conversations That Matter: Can genomics save the ‘devil’

For the past 12 years, Dr. Carolyn Hogg has been working with the Save the
Tasmanian devil Program utilizing genomics as a vital tool to save this
endangered marsupial. Carolyn joined a Conversation That Matters about the role genomics is playing in an all-out effort to save the Tasmanian devil.

Listen to the whole interview here:

The Sydney Morning Herold: Devil’s milk could be the killer ingredient in war on superbugs

PhD candidate Emma Peel from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences was interviewed about new research that has proved Tasmanian Devil’s milk can kill some of the most deadly bacterial and fungal infections

Read the full article here: