“Glow and behold”: The science behind The Toledo Zoo’s illuminating discovery

Tasmanian devil’s “new blue hue” picture lit up social media this weekend
Published: Dec. 10, 2020 at 6:35 PM EST
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - The black light was invented some 85 years ago. The Tasmanian Devil was first documented nearly two centuries ago. But in 2020, researchers have used one to make new discoveries about the other.

“A couple of months ago, the platypus was originally discovered to be biofluorescent -- then a few short weeks later, the wombat was,” explains Jake Schoen, conservation technician at The Toledo Zoo. “The platypus case was stumbled upon by researchers walking through a museum of preserved specimens with a black light, and it just snowballed into more targeted research.”

Jake noticed the Australian connection between the two animals and decided to test UV light on the zoo’s Tasmanian devils late last week. Schoen made a discovery of his own: The denizens of Australia’s island state immediately shone blue from their eyes, mouth, nose, and ears.

”It happened to be the first one we looked at,” recalls Schoen, who was on-hand for Friday’s experiment, “so it was really exciting to document the biofluorescence right away.”

That term -- “biofluorescence” -- is different from the kind you may see in your backyard over the summer. “Bioluminescence is found in organisms like fireflies, or the flashlight fish over in the aquarium... they create their own light internally with some chemical reactions.”

The Tasmanian devils, however, are “biofluorescent”, which means they need a certain wavelength of light to shine on them before they emit the light back out as a different color -- in this case, a striking blue which lit up social media this weekend.

”It’s been a lot of fun seeing how far it’s spread,” says Schoen. “We’ve even had people reach out from Tasmania, which is really fun.”

The phenomenon itself is not new. Some carnivorous plants use biofluorescence to attract prey, and orchids fluoresce to attract pollinators. But in the case of Tasmanian devils the purpose of this feature is still unknown. There could be multiple reasons or simply none at all. Schoen suggests it could be “to identify one another in the dim lighting, or attract prey... but at this point, it’s too early to definitively say.”

For his part, Schoen says he’s just glad to help drive further research: “The more we shine and test different wavelengths on species over the next few years, we’re very likely to see a flood of additional species that are found to be fluorescent as well.”

Tasmanian devils have another thing going for them: In a paper released Thursday, scientists have found that “devil facial-tumor disease” -- a transmissible cancer which nearly wiped out the population -- is not spreading nearly as quickly as it was when first discovered in the 1990s. The Toledo Zoo has informational placards explaining the disease, next to their home at the head of Tembo Trail; while they won’t be basking in UV light upon your visit, they’re still worth checking out.

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