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Tasmanian Devil’s teeth give valuable insights into their evolution and captive management

IN October 2020 Tasmania Devils were reintroduced to mainland Australia after 3000 years.

Understanding the Tassie Devils’ canine tooth shape and wear can give researchers valuable insights into their evolution and management in captivity.

Monash University researcher Tahlia Pollock says that canine teeth are what make carnivores such effective killers and help us better understand the correlation between an animal’s anatomy and its ecology.

“Tasmanian devils have pretty robust canines, they’re strong and fat and are similar in shape to animals like the honey badger and the wolverine,” she said.

 “Real rough and tumble species that are scavenging carcasses and have really broad, varied diets that can include a lot of hard materials.”

The study discovered that canine tooth shape varies among predators and is related to how they kill and the types of food they regularly bite into. For example, robust blunt canines are found in species with tougher more varied diets, just like the devil. This is because their stout shapes have evolved to withstand the stresses produced by crunching on bone and other hard foods.

3D imaging technology allows researchers to study the cross-section of canines in great detail. Attribution: Tahlia Pollock

Aussie Ark president Tim Faulkner said the reintroduction of Tasmanian Devils to the mainland marks a point in history where the ecological restoration of the entire country has been set in motion.

“Not only is this the reintroduction of one of Australia’s beloved animals, but of an animal that will engineer the entire environment around it, restoring and rebalancing our forest ecology after centuries of devastation from introduced foxes and cats and other invasive predators,” he said.

“Because of this reintroduction and all of the hard work leading up to it, someday we will see Tasmanian devils living throughout the great eastern forests as they did 3,000 years ago.”

Tasmanian devils vanished entirely from mainland Australia in large part because they were outcompeted by introduced dingoes, which hunt in packs.

Dingoes never made it to Tasmania, but across the island state, a transmissible, painful and fatal disease called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)—one of the only known contagious cancer—decimated up to 90 per cent of the wild population of Tasmanian devils.

Just 25,000 devils are left in the wild of Tasmania today.

Don Church, president of Global Wildlife Conservation says this is an incredible example of how to rewild the planet, bringing back the natural systems to the benefit of all life on Earth.

In the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, an initiative of the federal and Tasmanian governments, captive devils are given a variety of small and large foods at different times, replicating what they’d find in the wild.

In a separate study, Monash University researchers found no signs of strange or harmful tooth wear in captive devils, and they showed much the same patterns and types of wear as wild devils.

Species with a tougher or more varied diet have stout, robust teeth that don’t break when crunching bone or other hard foods.

These species include scavengers such as the Tasmanian devil and generalists such as the honey badger.

However, researchers noticed captive devils wore their teeth more slowly than those in the wild, which may be due to eating higher quality food, such as carcasses that were fresh, whole, and yet to be scavenged.

Ms Pollock says this indicates that captive institutions are doing a good job of providing devils with the right types of food for their teeth and encouraging wild behaviours.

Worn teeth can indicate the amount of grit or rough material scavengers incidentally eat
when consuming prey. Attribution: Tahlia Pollock

The Tasmanian devil is one of seven cornerstone species critical to Australia’s ecosystem that Aussie Ark plans to reintroduce to the wild sanctuary in the coming years, all chosen to help restore the natural balance.

Because they like to scavenge the carcasses of dead animals, roadkill is especially tempting for devils.

But being so close to the road is dangerous and road mortality is the second-biggest killer of wild devils.

Rewilding efforts mean humans and animals will slowly but surely need to renegotiate how we use space, and this means being attentive to the habits of scavengers like wild devils.

So, when you are driving on remote roads, especially at night, in Tasmania or across the mainland, keep a lookout for wildlife.

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Elliot Goodyer

Elliot is a freelance print and radio journalist with a passion for experimental radio fiction, podcasting and international affairs

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