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

Credit: Mathias Appel

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.

Credit: Mathias Appel 

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.​

Research project

In this study, we internally marked the whiskers of six captive Tasmanian devils with enriched stable isotopes every three months to determine how long it took for a whisker to grow.  The longest facial whisker was plucked from each animal a year after the trail. The whiskers were cut into sections and their stable isotope signature was measured using mass spectroscopy.

Tasmanian devil whisker about to be cut into segments for stable isotope analysis. Credit: Marie Attard

Tasmanian devil roadkill was also opportunistically collected to mark out the position of whiskers on the face and identify the location of the longest whiskers, which will contain the longest period of stable isotope information.

Roadkill was collected for this study to identify the position of whiskers on the face. White out was used to mark the position of each whisker. Credit: Marie Attard

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.


This study would have not been possible without the fantastic work of the zoos and animal sanctuaries that participated in this study – The Australian Reptile Park, Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park, Dreamworld, Kyabram Fauna Park, Taronga Conservation Society Australia and Taronga Western Plains Zoo.

I am especially grateful to Nick de Vos, Anthony Britt-Lewis, Todd Jenkinson, Fiona Cameron, Nana Satake, Kerry Fanson, Tamara Keeley, Ron Pope, Kezia Talbot, Nick Carson, Jill Perry, Liz Vella, Brad Gabriel and Sophia Essex and husbandry staff for their assistance in conducting the whisker growth rate trials at each institution.​

Thanks also to STDP, ZAA and DPIPWE for permitting the use of captive Tasmanian devils from the Insurance Population.


Attard, MRG, Lewis A, Wroe S, Hughes C and Rogers TL (In review) A tool to tell time: Vibrissae of endangered Tasmanian devils provide fine-scale temporal information about individual diet and habitat use.