Tasmanian Devil’s mustache maps months of food and habitat information, study finds

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A single mustache from a Tasmanian devil can give researchers up to a year of culinary information, including how much the animal has moved and whether it has changed the way it feeds.

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

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

“If we understand how animals adapt and react in different habitats, it allows us to predict how it’s going to play out in the future,” said lead author Tracey Rogers.

“Since the Tasmanian Devil is the last of these large marsupial carnivores, it’s really important that we take care of it.

The screenings will also help fight Devil’s Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), which at its peak wiped out 95% of the affected populations.

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

Devil’s Whiskers can be used as a culinary time capsule.(Provided: Anthony Britt-Lewis)

A time machine

The University of New South Wales research team wanted to understand the growth rate of devil’s mustaches to find a timestamp.

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

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

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

Professor Rogers said that to model a timeline, the researchers gave tablets containing heavy stable isotopes to six captive devils at three-month intervals.

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

On average, they found that the longest whiskers had at least nine months of history, but were likely to hold as much as a year of information as the growth of the whiskers slowed.

They also collected samples of prey species to get isotopic signatures so they could calculate how much the devil ate.

“We wanted to find a time stamp on each section of the mustaches so that we could go back there and trap a devil in the wild and pluck or cut a mustache,” she said.

The team collected the whiskers of the devils that kill the roads all over Tasmania and measured the length of each of the whiskers on either side of the face.

How do you get a mustache from a living devil?

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

Professor Rogers said it was important that a single mustache be taken from a living devil, as they played a vital role in how the devil viewed his surroundings.

She said picking up a devil’s mustache wasn’t as difficult as you might think.

Close-up of a devil's teeth.
Professor Rogers says devils have a bad reputation, but it is easy to work with them.(AAP / Devil’s Arch)

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

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

“I find it quite remarkable that these animals that prey on each other for food are incredibly soft and easy to work with,” she said.

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


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