The biological time machine: using whiskers to monitor the behaviour of Tasmanian devils

Efforts to conserve the endangered Tasmanian devil are hampered by an inadequate understanding of their behaviour in the wild.

Stable isotopes signatures of animal tissues can provide information about an individual’s diet and movement patterns over different time scales, depending on the tissue type used. Incrementally grown tissues, such as whiskers provide a sequential timeline of stable isotope information laid down in the tissue as it grows. Whiskers present a promising technique to monitor the behaviour of wild populations and assist management strategies to conserve the species.Information on the total lifespan and growth rate of Tasmanian devil whiskers is needed to unravel how far back in time each point along a whisker represents.

In this study, we internally marked the whiskers of six captive Tasmanian devils every three months to determine how long it took for a whisker to grow.

Modelling whisker growth rate will allow us to unlock temporal datasets from whiskers collected from living animals and achieved museum specimens to track past and present trends in their feeding ecology and movement.

Marie Attard Faculty of Science finalist representing the University wide 3 Minute Thesis Competition on 4 September 2012. Speech entitled: “The biological time machine: using whiskers to monitor the behaviour of Tasmanian devils.”

What other tissues can we use?

We can use many other different types of tissue to look into the diet of Tasmanian devils. Tissues that I have been collecting opportunistically from deceased animals include muscle, skin, bone and hair. Each of these different tissues will provide a different story about what the animal was eating in the past.

Tissues that have a short turnover rate, such as whole blood will provide stable isotope information representing what they ate in their most recent past. Bone, on the other hand, will give you an average of what the animal was eating over their lifetime as this tissue has a long turnover rate (and thus accumulates dietary information into their bone over long periods of time).




Muscle tissue taken from Tasmanian devil roadkill for stable isotope analysis