Our most mysterious animal is the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, which is considered to have become extinct in 1936.
There are many reasons why people are fascinated by this animal. Perhaps it is its name and the romantic notion of Australia having its own ‘tiger’. Perhaps it is its sad history since European settlement, or the fact that there are many people who claim they have seen a Tasmanian Tiger and believe it may not be extinct after all.
What was a Tasmanian Tiger?
The now extinct Tasmanian Tiger
The full scientific name for the Tasmanian Tiger is Thylacinus cynocephalis. Roughly translated, this means pouched dog with a wolf’s head.
Modern history records the thylacine as being native to Tasmania. However scientists believe it was once widespread throughout mainland Australia, Tasmania and even Papua New Guinea.
The main evidence for this belief is the presence of thylacine-like animals in Aboriginal rock art from northern Australia, including the Kimberley region of Western Australia, the Upper East Alligator region of Deaf Adder Creek and Cadell River crossing in the Northern Territory.
Numerous thylacine bones have been found in mainland Australia. Some of these bones have been dated at about 2,200 years old. Although we can’t be sure what happened to the thylacines of mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea, scientists suspect that competition for food and predators such as the dingo had a lot to do with their disappearance.
By the time Europeans settled in Australia, the thylacine was only found in the coastal and plains regions of Tasmania. Thylacines were quite common and widespread when Tasmania was first settled in 1803, and the Aboriginal people of Tasmania used the thylacine as a food item.
An animal like no other
The last Tasmanian Tiger taken at Hobart Zoo.
Although commonly called the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf, the thylacine has more in common with its marsupial cousin the Tasmanian Devil. With a head like a wolf, striped body like a tiger and backward facing pouch like a wombat, the thylacine was as unbelievable as the platypus which had caused disbelief and uproar in Europe when it was first described.
The thylacine looked like a long dog with stripes, a heavy stiff tail and a big head. A fully grown thylacine could measure 180cm from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, stand 58cm high at the shoulder and weigh about 30 kilograms. It had short, soft fur that was brown except for the thick black stripes which extended from the base of the tail to the shoulders.
The name ‘tiger’ refers to the animal’s stripes and not its temperament. The thylacine was a shy and secretive animal that avoided contact with humans. When a thylacine was captured it usually gave up without a struggle and many animals died quite suddenly, probably from shock.
Thylacines were carnivores. They were reported to be relentless hunters who pursed their prey until the prey was exhausted. Like the dingo, the thylacine was a very quiet animal, although they are reported to have made a husky barking sound or a loud yap when anxious or excited.
The thylacine was said to have an awkward way of moving, trotting stiffly and not moving particularly quickly. They walked on their toes like a dog but could also move in a more unusual way – a bipedal hop. The animal would stand upright with its front legs in the air, resting its hind legs on the ground and using its tail as a support, exactly the way a kangaroo does. Thylacines had been known to hop for short distances in this position.
The road to extinction
On 7 September 1936, the last known Tasmanian Tiger died at the Hobart Zoo. This was the first known species of animal to become extinct in Tasmania. So how did an animal that was so common just 100 years earlier, become extinct in such a short time? The answer, unfortunately, is humans.
In 1824, settlers introduced sheep to the rich grazing lands in Tasmania. To the thylacine, more used to hunting swift moving prey such as kangaroos and birds, these must have seemed like a much easier meal.
In 1830, the Van Diemen’s Land Company offered a bounty for the scalp of each thylacine. A further bounty was offered by the Tasmanian government in 1888. Between then and 1909, the government paid more than 2,180 bounties.
By 1910, the once-common thylacine was considered rare and zoos from all over the world were keen to have one in their collection. Unfortunately, not many thylacines lasted long in captivity. Habitat destruction and a distemper-like disease further decreased the population until the last thylacine was captured in 1933.
This animal was kept at Hobart Zoo until it died in September 1936. The accepted story is that the day-shift keeper forgot to lock the thylacine up in its hut one night and it died of exposure.
The legend lives on – or does it?
Since 1936, there have been many recorded sightings of the thylacine. In fact, sightings were a common occurrence until the 1960s, but not one of theses sightings has ever been substantiated. Interestingly, not all of these sightings have been in Tasmania. Claims of sightings have occurred in rural north Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.
Examination of photographs taken of alleged thylacine sightings have generally revealed the animal in question to be a feral dog with striped markings. The most intriguing of these was a report made in 1977 of a group of thylacines, including a female with young in her pouch, somewhere on the New South Wales-Victorian border. Some photographs of the sighting were published in the press and appear convincing. Scientists are reluctant to say any more without hard evidence.
Small thylacine pup preserved in alcohol
Anthony Farr, Could the genes contained within this pup be the answer to cloning the thylacine?, Nature focus, Australian Museum.
With the advent of new technologies, there is now some discussion around the possibility of cloning the thylacine. The Australian Museum has a small thylacine pup that was preserved in alcohol in 1866. Because the pup was preserved in alcohol and not formalin, some speculation has occurred that it may be possible for the cells to be used for cloning.
In 1999, the Australian Museum began a project in an effort to bring to life an extinct species. Although this may sound like science fiction, a number of critical breakthroughs were made. In 2002, individual thylacine genes were successfully replicated. The next stage is to make copies of all the genes of the thylacine in order to produce a chromosome. After this, it has been suggested that the genetic material could be implanted into the egg of a Tasmanian Devil (the thylacine’s only living relative) who could then give birth to a thylacine.
All of this, however, is a long way in the future. In the meantime, scientists debate whether the effort and cost involved in trying to clone the thylacine would be better spent in trying to prevent the extinction of other endangered Australian animals.