The Devil in the Detail
The Royal Australian Mint recently released their commemorative coin series. One of the designs was based on this handsome devil, an Australian Museum specimen!
Australia is home to an impressive array of potentially deadly animals. A fact that James French from the Royal Australian Mint was keenly aware of, when he chose “Inside Australia’s Most Dangerous” as the theme for the Mint’s recent high quality commemorative coin series.
Designs depicting the skeletons of a Saltwater Crocodile and Western Taipan, each in attack mode, were well underway when James approached the Australian Museum in July 2019 enquiring about Tasmanian Devils. He needed an articulated skeleton of Australia’s largest surviving marsupial carnivore, Sarcophilus harrisii, in an animated pose to inspire the design for a new five-dollar coin. The Australian Museum Tasmanian Devil skeleton number S.695 fitted the bill perfectly.
Presented to the Museum over 120 years ago by the Royal Zoological Society of NSW and registered on 22 May 1899, skeleton S.695 was most likely on display in the museum’s early “Osteological Hall” but was later returned to the collection. Far from being forgotten, it is now immortalized in an exquisite, hand polished, silver coin, released in April 2020.
There is little argument that the reptiles depicted on the two other coins in the series, the Saltwater Crocodile and Western Taipan, are potentially dangerous to humans. Although the Tasmanian Devil, a top mammalian predator and scavenger, can also deliver a nasty bite if cornered, they generally avoid people where possible and pose no danger to humans. Its broad, heavy skull and large jaw (masseter) muscles generate a particularly strong bite force used to crush the bones of wallabies, wombats and other small to medium sized mammals which form the bulk of its diet. The Tasmanian Devil’s fearsome reputation probably arose from its behavior when feeding. Mostly solitary animals, Tasmanian Devils do gather at a carcass where there are often aggressive displays of biting, growling, wrestling and shoving, accompanied by a cacophony of shrieks, growls, hisses, moans and foot stamping.
Once classed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN, Tasmanian Devils have now been elevated to “Endangered” due to the drastic decline in numbers since 1996 caused by Devil Facial Tumor Disease.
While not for general circulation, these coins in the Mint’s “Natural World” category are produced to celebrate Australian icons – and the Tasmanian Devil is certainly one of these treasures. Coins are available for purchase from the Royal Australian Mint website. The Mint has also donated two gorgeous Devil coins to the Australian Museum in return for our assistance in checking anatomical accuracy and writing text. With so many potential “deadly” species to choose from, together with the Australian Museum’s vast collections, it is quite possible more coins will be added to the series in future!
Dr Sandy Ingleby, Mammals Collection Manager, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Australian Museum Research Institute.
Robert K. Rose, David A. Pemberton, Nick J. Mooney, and Menna E. Jones (2017). Sarcophilus harrisii (Dasyuromorphia: Dasyuridae). Mammalian Species, 49(942):1–17. DOI: 10.1093/mspecies/sex001.