How do you know what a Tasmanian devil had for breakfast? It’s all in the whiskers

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

Key points:

  • A whisker can hold up to a year's worth of devil diet data
  • For the first time, researchers can find out what the devil ate and when
  • The information will help protect the species from climate change

After studying whiskers from live 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 respond under different climate conditions.

"If we understand how animals cope and respond in different habitats it allows us to predict how it's going to play out into the future," senior author Tracey Rogers said.

"Given the Tasmanian devil is the last of those big marsupial carnivores it's really important we look after it.

"It's important we understand the conditions that the devil needs and thrives in into the future."

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

"More than telling us about the disease, it tells us how they are responding after disease has gone through," Professor Rogers said. 

Devil whiskers can be used like a culinary time capsule.(Supplied: 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 whiskers to come up with a time stamp.

Until now, diet signatures could be traced from whiskers but it wasn't known when the creature ate the food.

"We're using the devils' whiskers to trace back through time," Professor 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."

Researchers say one 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 captive devils at three-month intervals.

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

On average, they found the longest whiskers held at least nine months of history, but was likely to hold up to a year's worth of information as the whisker growth slowed.

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

"We wanted to find a time stamp on each of the sections of the whiskers so we can go back in and trap a devil in the wild and pluck or cut off one whisker," she said.

"Then we can cut it up and look back over the whole year of the life of the devil to reconstruct what they ate and where they were living."

The team collected whiskers from roadkill devils from all around Tasmania and measured the length of every single one of the whiskers on either side of the face.

How do you get a whisker from a live devil?

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

Professor Rogers said it was important only one whisker was taken from a live devil, because they played a vital role in how the devil experienced its surroundings.

She said collecting a whisker from a devil wasn't as hard as you would think.

"Devils have a really bad reputation because of all that noise," she said.

Professor Rogers says devils have a bad reputation but are easy to work with.(AAP/Devil Ark)

"But when working with devils they are actually really quiet."

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

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

"Probably because they are going into a fear response and they freeze."

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