Biofluorescence in Tasmanian Devils Observed For the First Time at Toledo Zoo

Toledo Zoo has reported the first documented case of biofluorescence in Tasmanian devils!

Biofluorescence refers to the phenomenon by which a living organism absorbs light and reemits it as a different color. In a recent post, we presented how following the accidental discovery by U.S. scientists that platypuses glow under UV light, further tests by Australian scientists have shown that other mammals, including marsupials, also glow.

Now it turns out the Tasmanian devil glows in UV light too. And it looks kind of beautifully creepy.

The skin around the snout, eyes, and inner ear of the Tasmanian devil absorbs UV light (a type of light that is naturally abundant, yet invisible to humans) and reemits it as blue, visible light. At this stage, it is still unclear whether this instance of biofluorescence serves any ecological purpose or is simply a coincidence.

Photo: Jake Schoen, Toledo Zoo Conservation Technician

As noted above, biofluorescence has recently been discovered to occur in other Australian mammals such as the platypus, the bilby and the wombat (depicted below). Ohio native Virginia opossums and southern flying squirrels also fluoresce under UV light.

While the reasons (or lack thereof) for biofluorescence in mammals have yet to be determined, evidence suggests that some bird species use UV fluorescence to attract mates, while many fish speices use biofluorescence to camouflage themselves. The rest is but speculation.

When illuminated by UV light, wombats’ fur glow, similarly to many other Australian animals. Image credit: Western Australian Museum

While it is possible that Tasmanian devils evolved biofluorescence for purposes such as those above, it is also possible (though perhaps less exciting) that due to their primarily nocturnal habits, they may not encounter fluorescence-inducing levels of UV in the wild after all. At the same time, Tasmanian devils or other species they interact with (such as their predators or prey) may not be able to detect UV light or the resulting fluorescence.

And even if the biofluorescence occurred naturally and was detectable by a species, it would also need to influence their behavior in order for it to be considered a functional adaptation. So these findings should be interpreted with caution, but one thing is sure: the Tasmanian devil lives up to its name in all spectrums of light!

Sources: 1, 2

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