The Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine) - sometimes called the Tasmanian Wolf - is one of the most fabled animals in the world. Yet, despite its fame, it is one of the least understood of Tasmania's native animals.
Unfortunately, European settlers were puzzled by the Tasmanian Tiger. They feared it and killed it when they could. After only a century of white settlement the animal had been pushed to the brink of extinction.
The thylacine looked like a large, long dog, with stripes, a heavy stiff tail and a big head. Its scientific name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, means pouched dog with a wolfs head. Fully grown it measured about 180 cm (6 ft) from nose to tail tip, stood about 58 cm (2 ft) high at the shoulder and weighed up to 30 kg. The short, soft fur was brown except for 13 - 20 dark brown-black stripes that extended from the base of the tail to almost the shoulders. The stiff tail became thicker towards the base and appeared to merge with the body.
The Thylacine was one of only two marsupials to have a pouch in both sexes (the other being the water opossum). The male Thylacine had a pouch that acted as a protective sheath, covering his external reproductive organs while he ran through thick brush.The female thylacine had a pouch with four teats, but unlike many other marsupials, the pouch opened to the rear of its body. Males had a scrotal pouch, unique amongst the Australian marsupials, into which they could withdraw their scrotal sac.
Thylacines were usually mute, but when anxious or excited made a series of husky, coughing barks. When hunting, they gave a distinctive terrier-like, double yap, repeated every few seconds. Unfortunately there are no recordings.
Thylacine footprints could be distinguished from other native or introduced animals; unlike foxes, cats, dogs, wombats or Tasmanian devils. Thylacines had a very large rear pad and four obvious front pads, arranged in almost a straight line. The hindfeet were similar to the forefeet but had four digits rather than five. Their claws were non-retractable.
The thylacine was shy and secretive and always avoided contact with humans. Despite its common name, 'tiger' it had a quiet, nervous temperament compared to its little cousin, the Tasmanian devil. Captured animals generally gave up without a struggle, and many died suddenly, apparently from shock. When hunting, the thylacine relied on a good sense of smell, and stamina. It was said to pursue its prey relentlessly, until the prey was exhausted. The thylacine was rarely seen to move fast, but when it did it appeared awkward. It trotted stiffly, and when pursued, broke into a kind of shambling canter.
Why is the Thylacine extinct?
The arrival of European settlers marked the start of a tragic period of conflict that led to the thylacine's extinction. The introduction of sheep in 1824 led to conflict between the settlers and thylacines.
In the generally accepted story, the last thylacine, a marsupial carnivore from Australia, died in captivity in the 1930s. The species was officially declared extinct in the 1980s.
Thylacines originally ranged across both the Australian mainland and Tasmania. The arrival of aboriginal people in Australia, and the ensuing modification of landscapes, plus the introduction of competing dingos, was too much for thylacines in the mainland, but they may have briefly overlapped there with early European settlers.
The thylacine persisted in Tasmania, where it quickly ran afoul of a crucial economic development plan; sheep farming. The actual extent of predation on livestock was overstated, but thylacines were blamed for many of the sheep industry’s problems. The government placed a bounty on thylacines at the urging of the sheep industry in 1888. It didn’t help that the European scientific establishment demonized thylacines as vicious, blood-drinking beasts. The bounty was rescinded in 1909, but the thylacine did not receive any formal protection until 1936—the year the last one died.
Below is a timeline of Thylacine events leading up to the official 'extinct' status...
- 1830 Van Diemens Land Co. introduced a thylacine bounties.
- 1888 Tasmanian Parliament placed a price of £1 on thylacine's head.
- 1909 Government bounty scheme terminated. 2184 bounties paid.
- 1910 Thylacines rare -- sought by zoos around the world.
- 1926 London Zoo bought its last thylacine for £150.
- 1933 Last thylacine captured, Florentine Valley, sold Hobart Zoo.
- 1936 World's last captive thylacine died in Hobart Zoo, ( 7/9/36).
- 1936 Tasmanian tiger added to the list of protected Wildlife.
- 1986 Thylacine declared extinct by international standards.
But do they still exist...?
Since 1936, no conclusive evidence of a thylacine has been found. However, the incidence of reported thylacine sightings has continued. Most sightings occur at night, in the north of the State, in or near areas where suitable habitat is still available. Although the species is now considered to be 'probably extinct', these sightings provide some hope that the thylacine may still exist.
There have been hundreds of 'claimed' sightings since 1936, many of which may have been clear cases of mis-identification. However, in a detailed study of sightings between 1934 and 1980, Steven Smith concluded that of a total of 320 sightings, just under half could be considered good sightings. Nonetheless, all sightings have remained inconclusive.
Interestingly, just as many sightings of equally good quality are reported from mainland Australia -- perhaps a comment on the poor evidence that sightings alone represent.
There have been a number of searches for the animal. None of these searches have been successful in proving the continued existence of the animal. The results of a few of these searches are given below:
- 1937 - Seargent Summers leads a search in the north-west of he state, recording many recent sightings by other persons in a large area between the Arthur and Pieman Rivers, although the party itself did not see any thylacines. He recommends a sanctuary in that area.
- 1945 - Well-known naturalist David Fleay searches the Jane River to Lake St Clair area, finding possible thylacine footprints.
- 1959 - Eric Guiler leads a search in the far north-west, an area which produced many bounties and finds what appeared to be thylacine footprints.
- 1963 - Eric Guiler leads a search in the Sandy Cape area but finds no evidence.
- 1968 - Jeremy Griffiths, James Malley and Bob Brown embark on a major search. Although they collect reports of sightings, they find no evidence of the thylacine.
- 1980 - Parks and Wildlife Officers, Steven Smith and Adrian Pyrke, search a wide area of the State using three automatic cameras. No evidence of thylacines is found.
- 1982-83 - Parks and Wildlife Officer, Nick Mooney, undertakes an extensive but unsuccessful search to confirm the 1982 sighting reported by Hans Naarding near the Arthur River in the State's north-west.
- 1984 - A search in Tasmania's highlands by Tasmanian Wildlife Park owner, Peter Wright, fails to turn up conclusive evidence.
- 1988-93 - Separate photographic searches by wildlife photographer, Dave Watts and Ned Terry fail to record a thylacine.
Is there hope for a future Thylacine?
The thylacine is the only mammal to have (possibly) become extinct in Tasmania since European settlement. This is in vivid contrast to mainland Australia, which has the worst record of mammalian extinctions of any country on Earth, with nearly 50% of its native mammals becoming extinct in the past 200 years. Tasmania is unique in that fauna is abundant, and that the State acts as a refuge - a final hope -- for many species that have recently become extinct on mainland Australia.
Despite our wishes to have a perfect record, the lack of any hard evidence of the thylacine's continued existence supports the increasingly held notion that the species is extinct. Nonetheless, the incidence of sightings introduces a reluctance among some authorities to make empahatic statements on the status of the species. Even if there did exist a few remaining individuals, it is unlikely that such a tiny population would be able to maintain a sufficient genetic diversity to allow for the viable perpetuation of the species in the long-term.
There has already been a huge project to ‘de-extinct’ these animals that ran between 1999-2005 attempting to do just that, and research continues today, but so far all attempts have failed. It has been estimated that it would take up to AUD $80 million (62.5 million US Dollars) to fund a successful attempt, as the Tasmanian Tiger’s full genome has never been sequenced and there are no close relatives to help the process along. Problems include the fact that all of the available DNA is degraded and mostly unusable, and with the Tasmanian tiger being a different branch of the marsupial family, finding a suitable incubator species.
Recent attention has been given to the possibility of cloning the species. However, it is very unlikely to be achievable from a single individual preserved in alcohol. Even if cloning were possible, it should be asked whether such effort and expense is justifiable when many other species are currently threatened with extinction, and when we allow the same processes that threaten habitats and wildlife to continue.
This complete body of a thylacine pup (above) was sent to the Australian Museum in 1866 – 70 years before the last known thylacine died in Hobart Zoo in 1936. The animal is beautifully preserved, and is a poignant reminder of the importance of collecting to conserving our natural history.
Because the thylacine specimen was preserved in alcohol, rather than the usual formaldehyde, the Museum in 1999 proposed an ambitious project to attempt to clone the thylacine – in effect, bringing the species back from extinction – using the pup’s DNA. However, the genetic material was found to be too degraded to re-life the Thylacine.
All of the combined footage of Tasmanian tigers, all zoo specimens, from Tasmania and London. Some of this film is of the last known individual of the species.