Research Project: The importance of early socialisation in subsequent mate preference and breeding success in the Tasmanian Devil
Maintaining natural behaviour and increasing breeding success of captive populations is a significant priority in the conservation of endangered species.
Incompatibility between mates can result in delayed pairing, decreased reproductive output or even serious injury to proposed mates. Although there is growing knowledge about the reproduction of Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) in captivity, breeding can be sporadic and unreliable.
There is anecdotal evidence that over-familiarisation of adult devils leads to a decrease in breeding success. However, young devils at Healesville Sanctuary are socialised following weaning in an effort to maintain natural social behaviours (mimicking interactions that are thought to occur in dispersing wild juveniles).
Research at Healesville Sanctuary has shown that socialisation of young devils in large groups is very positive with greater activity levels and friendly denning practices which has resulted in one of the best breeding records within Australian zoos.
Studies on other marsupials show that mate choice decreases aggression between potential mates and significantly increases breeding success, and familiarisation of mates prior to the breeding season may also help.
We need to determine if devils can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar devils based on scent and if socialisation of devils at a young age could affect an animal’s future mate preference.
To determine whether Tasmanian Devils:
use scent to recognise other individual devils
can distinguish between the scent of familiar individuals (that they were socialised with when they were young), related individuals, unfamiliar individuals and themselves
have a preference for familiar or unfamiliar devils, how this is reflected in social groupings of young devils, and how this may affect future mate choice and breeding success
Devils were presented with the faeces of familiar, unfamiliar, and related devils as well as their own, and their behaviour was video-recorded to assess how they respond to the different scents. This work was completed in 2013
The preferences of males and females will be compared for different scents before, during and after the breeding season to see if responses change over this time which is part of an ongoing study
Outcomes so far...
We found that Tasmanian Devils can discriminate between their own scents and the scents of other devils
Males were significantly more interested in female scents than the scents of other males
Although devils showed far more interest in other devils scents than their own, they did not show any overall preference for a familiar or unfamiliar scent, nor that of their siblings. This shows that the practice of socialising young devils after weaning is unlikely to negatively impact future mating events for Tasmanian Devils and, given its positive influences on devil activity and behaviour, could be adopted in the wider devil insurance program. Furthermore, devils can recognise individuals based on scent, thus scents could be used to establish familiarity and mate choice prior to introductions for breeding.
Primary researchers: Marissa Parrot (Reproductive biologist, Zoos Victoria)
Participating organisations: Zoos Victoria; Deakin University