Thylacine

Thylacine—Only an expert would be able to tell that this skull belonged to a thylacine and not a dog. (Natural History Museum at Tring)
Thylacine—A stuffed skin of a thylacine. Note the similarity of this Australian marsupial to a dog. (Natural History Museum at Tring)

Scientific name: Thylacinus cynocephalus Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Dasyuromorphia Family: Thylacinidae

When did it become extinct? It became extinct in the year 1936, although unconfirmed sightings are still reported. Where did it live? The thylacine was native to Australia and New Guinea, but in relatively recent times, its range was limited to Tasmania, the island off the southeastern tip of Australia.

A short, black-and-white, silent film showing an unusual doglike animal pacing up and down in a zoo enclosure is a poignant reminder of the last known thylacine, known affectionately as Benjamin. The film was shot in 1933 at Hobart Zoo in Tasmania, and three years after the film was shot, Benjamin died—some say through neglect, but whatever the cause, his demise was the end of the species.

The range of the thylacine, also inaccurately known as the Tasmanian wolf or Tasmanian tiger, once encompassed the forests of New Guinea and most of Australia, as bones and other remains testify. However, at least 40,000 years ago, humans reached these lands, and the demise of the thylacine began. When European explorers first reached this part of the world, the thylacine was restricted to the island of Tasmania, and it was already quite rare. The reason for its disappearance from the mainland is a bone of contention, but Aboriginal hunting is thought to be a factor and, much later, competition with the dingoes that first found their way to Australia via Aboriginal trading with Southeast Asian people around 4,000 years ago.

From the black-and-white film and numerous photos and accounts of the thylacine, we know exactly what it looked like and some of its behavior. In appearance, it was quite doglike, but it was a marsupial, and like all marsupials, it had a pouch; however, unlike some other flesh-eating marsupials, the thylacine's pouch opened to the rear, and it was to this cozy pocket that the young crawled after being born, fixing themselves onto one of the four teats in its confines. As its appearance suggests, the thylacine was a predator in the same vein as other large, terrestrial, mammalian carnivores, but it had some unique features. Its jaws, operated by powerful muscles, could open very wide indeed, and its muscular, relatively rigid tail, similar to a kangaroo's, acted like a prop so the thylacine could balance quite easily on its back legs, and even hop when it needed to. We can only make educated guesses as to the animals it preyed on, but on the Australian mainland, it may have favored kangaroos and wallabies, whereas its diet on Tasmania probably consisted of just about any animal smaller than itself as well as carrion. How did the thylacine catch its prey? Again, we have to rely on accounts from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but these vary, with some suggesting the thylacine would pursue its prey over long distances, while others report that it was an ambush predator. In Tasmania, it may have relied on both of these predatory tactics depending on the habitat in which it was hunting.

Records of the behavior of the thylacine suggest that it was active at dusk and dawn and during the night; however, this behavior may have been unnatural—a response to human persecution. During the day, thylacines built a nest of twigs and ferns in a large hollow tree or a suitable rocky crevice, and when the dusk came, they would leave these retreats in the forested hills to look for food on the open heaths.

Sadly, the thylacine's predatory nature brought it into conflict with the European settlers who started to raise livestock on the productive island of Tasmania. The killing of sheep and poultry was attributed to the thylacine, even though they were rarely seen. The authorities at the time initiated a bounty scheme in which farmers and hunters could collect a reward for the thylacines they killed. Between 1888 and 1909, this bounty was £1 per thylacine, and records show that 2,184 bounties were paid out, but it is very likely that the bounty was left unclaimed on many occasions. By the 1920s, the thylacine was very rare in the wild, and the species clung to survival as a few scattered individuals in the former strongholds of its range. Although human persecution was the final blow for this animal, it was probably also suffering from competition with introduced dogs and the diseases they carried. Benjamin was the last known thylacine, and after 50 years with no evidence of any surviving individuals, the species was declared extinct in 1986. Many people cling to the hope that a remnant population of thylacines still survives in Tasmania. Tasmania is a large, rugged, and sparsely populated island, and there is a very faint possibility that the thylacine has somehow clung to existence. The last person to photograph a living thylacine, David Fleay, searched Tasmania with a colleague, and the evidence they found suggests that the thylacine was hanging on into the 1960s. Sightings are still reported today, not only from Tasmania, but also from mainland Australia and the Indonesian portion of New Guinea. Until a live specimen of the thylacine is presented or other irrefutable evidence is declared, we have to conclude that this enigmatic species is sadly extinct.

♦ The demise of the thylacine on the Australian mainland is attributed to the arrival and dispersal of Aborigines and the animals they brought with them, notably the dingo. This may only be part of the picture as the striped coat of the thylacine suggests this animal was adapted to forest. A drying of the global climate thousands of years ago may have caused Australian forest habitats to contract, and the thylacine may have been forced into areas to which it was not well adapted. This loss of habitat was compounded by the large-scale changes that followed in the wake of the first human invasion of Australia.

♦ The thylacine, when compared to the wolf, is one of the best examples of convergent evolution, the phenomenon by which two unrelated animals from widely separated locations have a striking resemblance to one another because of the similar niches to which they have had to adapt. In Australasia, the thylacine filled the niche of a running predator that is occupied by canid predators in the Northern Hemisphere, and as a result, it came to look like them.

♦ There are several preserved fetuses of the thylacine in museum collections around the world, and scientists had suggested that it would be possible to bring the thylacine back from extinction using the DNA from these specimens and the technology of cloning. DNA was extracted from these specimens, but it was badly degraded, and therefore cloning would have been impossible.

Further Reading: Bailey, C. Tiger Tales: Stories of the Tasmanian Tiger. Sydney: HarperCollins, 2001; Paddle, R. The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Guiler, E. Thylacine: The Tragedy of the Tasmanian Tiger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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  • massimo davide
    What was the world like when the thylacine was around?
    8 years ago

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