Study Finds Tasmanian Devil Whiskers Map Months of Food and Habitat Information

A single whisker from a Tasmanian devil can give researchers up to a year of culinary insight, including how much the animal moved around and whether it changed the way it fed.

After studying whiskers from living and dead devils, experts will now be able to determine not only what the carnivore had for breakfast, but also what season it was.

The information will allow researchers to project into the future how the animal will react under different climatic conditions.

“Understanding how animals fare and react in different habitats allows us to predict how it will play out in the future,” said senior author Tracey Rogers.

“Given that the Tasmanian devil is the last of the great marsupials, it’s really important that we take care of it.

The projections will also help in the fight against Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), which at its peak wiped out 95 percent of the affected populations.

“More than telling us about the disease, it tells us how they react after the disease has gone through,” Professor Rogers said.

Close-up of a Tasmanian devil looking at the camera, with its whiskers prominent
Devil whiskers can be used as a culinary time capsule.(Delivered by: Anthony Britt-Lewis)

A whisker time machine

The research team from the University of New South Wales wanted to understand the growth rate of devil hair to come up with a timestamp.

Until now, dietary signatures could be traced from whiskers, but it was not known when the creature ate the food.

“We use the devil’s whiskers to trace back in time,” Professor Rogers said.

Tasmanian devil standing on a rock
Researchers say a whisker could provide more information than a week-long observation trip.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Fred Hooper)

Professor Rogers said to model a timeline, the researchers fed tablets containing heavy stable isotopes to six captured devils three months apart.

They found that whiskers grew rapidly before slowing down, and whiskers on different parts of the muzzle grew to different lengths.

On average, they found that the longest whiskers lasted in at least nine months of history, but would likely hold up to a year of information as whisker growth slowed.

They also collected samples from prey to obtain isotopic signatures so that they could make calculations about how much the devil ate.

“We wanted to find a timestamp on each of the sections of the whiskers so we could go back and catch a devil in the wild and pick or cut a whisker,” she said.

The team collected whiskers from roadkill devils from all over Tasmania and measured the length of each whisker on each side of the face.

How to get a whisker from a living devil?

Now that the team understands the growth rates for devil hair, it is believed that a whisker will be able to tell a more in-depth story than a week-long observation trip.

Professor Rogers said it was important that only one whisker was taken from a living devil because they played a crucial role in how the devil experienced his surroundings.

She said it was not as difficult as one would think to gather a whisker from a devil.

A close-up of a devil's teeth.
Professor Rogers says devils have a bad reputation but are easy to work with.(AAP / Devil Ark)

“But when they work with devils, they are actually very quiet.”

She said, as part of the research, the team captured captured devils from DFTD insurance populations in zoos.

“I find it quite remarkable that these animals, which will attack each other over food, are incredibly gentle and easy to work with,” she said.

“Probably because they go into a fear reaction and they freeze.”

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