Australian scientists are peering behind closed burrow doors into the secret nocturnal lives of Tasmanian devils by studying their whiskers.
Chemical clues and imprints in the endangered marsupial’s long, wiry whiskers can reveal what they ate months and even seasons ago, new research led by UNSW Sydney found.
“We’re using the devils’ whiskers to trace back through time,” ecologist Tracey Rogers said.
“Once dissected, the whiskers can act like the rings of a tree trunk, painting a picture of what the animals ate and how they lived up to a year ago.”
The research will give scientists another tool to monitor the endangered native species, with minimal disruptions to its habitat.
Previously, tracing a devil’s culinary history using its whiskers had been like using an out-of-order time machine.
Scientists could see the chemical records but they could not confirm if they were from a week, month, or year ago.
To get a clearer picture of the timeline, researchers fed tablets containing non-decaying atoms to six captive devils at three-month intervals.
These acted as time-stamps marking the whiskers with each season’s passing.
When more than a year had passed, the team plucked and examined the longest whisker from each animal.
They found the whiskers grew fast at first before slowing down, with the longest holding about nine months of the animal’s ecological history.
This included the devil’s foraging habits, seasonal dietary changes, habitat use, and how they respond to environmental change.
Researchers used the findings to create a new whisker-analysis model that can help track how the animals are faring in the wild after recently being saved from extinction.
Devil numbers are currently in recovery after plummeting due to a highly transmissible cancer called the devil facial tumour disease.
Many healthy animals have been relocated to disease-free areas or are part of captive breeding programs to help boost their numbers.
But the contagious disease continues to devastate Tasmanian populations.
The research was published in the science journal Ecosphere.