Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger)
Thylacine, the last existing member of family Thylacinidae, was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of the modern era. This species went extinct in the twentieth century. At times, they are referred as a cryptid.
Thylacine went extinct from the mainland Australia around two-thousand years ago; while the New Guinea specimens wiped out earlier than that. They survived in the island state of Tasmania till the 1930s.
|Scientific name||Thylacinus cynocephalus|
|Other Names||Tasmanian tiger; Tasmanian wolf; Thylacine tiger.|
|Size||Length – 100 to 135 cms.Shoulder height – 60 cms.|
|Tail size||50 to 60 cms.|
|Color||Yellowish brown with stripes on the back, rump and the base of its tail; along with cream colored belly.|
|Weight||40 to 70 pounds.|
|Lifespan||5 – 7 years in the wild; 9 years in captivity.|
|Closest relative species||The numbat and Tasmanian devil.|
|Habitat||Grasslands, wetlands and dry eucalyptus forests.|
Thylacine was native to Australia mainland, Tasmania (island state of Australia) and New Guinea.
Species of family Thylacinidae first appeared at the start of Miocene epoch. The modern-day Thylacine appeared around four million years ago. During the late Pleistocene and early Holocene epoch, this species was widespread in Australia. Since 1990, at least seven fossil samples have been found at Riversleigh, in northwest Queensland, Australia.
Thylacine, a proper example is convergent evolution, has many similarities with family Canidae – such as powerful jaws, sharp teeth, raised heels and the overall structure of the body. It is not related to any predators of the Northern Hemisphere.
This species went extinct from the mainland Australia and were quite rare in the island state of Tasmania. When he European settlers arrived, they encountered this species probably as far back as in 1642 in Tasmania. The first definitive encounter came from French explorers in 1792. However, the first detailed description came from George Harris, Tasmania’s Deputy Surveyor-General, in 1808. In his account, Harris described it as “dog-headed opossum.”
The proof of their existence in the mainland Australia came from exsiccated carcass found in 1990 in Western Australia. Carbon dating suggested that they were around 3300 years old. There are several examples of Thylacine engravings on rocks, dating back to 1000 BC.
Ecology and Behavior
This species was naturally nocturnal and crepuscular hunter. Evidence suggests that they were shy and secretive and typically avoided human contact. However, they are known to be inquisitive. They were not known to be territorial. However, they had a home range of around 40-80 km2. They were, at times, observed to stray in groups. They spent morning hours in caves or hollow tree trunks. Some researchers said that this species used to hunt in small groups and they were ambush predator rather than pursuit predator.
They are known breed throughout the year. However, the peak season was winter and spring. They gave birth to 2 – 3 cubs per litter. They carried the cubs in a pouch for three months. The cubs were blind and hairless at the time of birth. They were fully furred when they were released from the pouch. As juveniles, they used to stay in the den while their mother went hunting.
In Melbourne Zoo, in 1899, this species was successfully bred in captivity.
Thylacine had muscular stomach and they could consume large amount of food at a single go. Researchers believe that it was their adaptation to even off when there was food scarce or hunting was unsuccessful.
In the wild, their diet included kangaroos, birds, wallabies, wombats, potoroos, possums as well as Tasmanian emu.
However, a recent study by the University of New South Wales on this species suggested that they had feeble jaws and they usually hunt animals close to their own size. The researchers believe that they only fed on small animals like possums and bandicoots.
Hunting and direct competition with Dingo are believed to be two of the primary reasons associated with their extinction. In Tasmania, their extinction was triggered by the introduction of dogs by the European settlers. Bounty hunting (as this species was seen as a threat to livestock) also played a major role in wiping them out of their native habitat.
From 1888 to 1909, the government paid more than 2000 bounties to get rid of this species. The sudden decline of their population came in notice in early 20th century. They were declared extinct in 1936.
The last known wild specimen was killed in 1930, in the northeast of the state, by Wilf Batty, a farmer from Mawbanna. The last known individual, referred to as Benjamin, was caught by Elias Churchill in the Florentine Valley in 1933. Later it was sent to Hobart Zoo, where it stayed for three years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature declared it extinct in 1982; while the Tasmanian government called it extinct in 1986.
- In 1983, US media mogul Ted Turner offered US$ 100000 reward if anyone could prove the existence of Thylacine. The Bulletin (an Australian news magazine) offered US$ 1.25 million reward if anyone could safely capture a live Thylacine.
- Thylacine has been widely used as a symbol in the island state of Tasmania (such as Tasmanian coat of arms, Tasmanian vehicle number plates, Tourism Tasmania and City of Launceston and others).
- Thylacine has often been the subject of novels, children’s books and video games.
- Since 1996, Australia held National Threatened Species Day on 7th September to commemorate the death of the last recorded Thylacine.
- Fossil specimens of other members of family Thylacinidae have been found dating back to late Oligocene epoch.
Demands for its protection started since the beginning of the 20th century following the difficulty in obtaining specimens for overseas collections. Political difficulties also played a role in bringing in proper measures till 1936. The Tasmanian government introduced laws to protect this species on 10th July, 1936 (59 days before the last individual died in captivity).
Search efforts by David Fleay and Dr. Eric Guiler in the northwest part of Tasmania found some footprints that were believed to be of this species. They also listened to vocalizations that were similar to that of Thylacine. Anecdotal evidence gathered from local people suggested that they have sighted this animal. However, they were unable to collect any conclusive evidence to prove the existence of this animal.
Two other search efforts – one from 1967 to 1973 by zoologist Jeremy Griffith and dairy farmer James Malley; and another in 1972 by Thylacine Expeditionary Research Team – ended in vain. Self-funded search efforts, mainly by Thylacine enthusiasts, still takes place.
Sightings are often reported from Tasmania as well as mainland Australia (mainly from Southern Victoria). There are several sightings that have managed to garner huge amount of interest from public.
- In 1973, Gary and Liz Doyle shot a video at a South Australian road showing an unidentified animal running across that some believe as Thylacine.
- In 1982, researcher Hans Naarding claimed to have seen a Thylacine near Arthur River in northwestern Tasmania. This report brought in a government-funded search that went on for a year.
- In 1985, Kevin Cameron produced photographs of an animal that is believed to be Thylacine. He took the photographs in Western Australia.
- In January 1995, an officer of the Parks and Wildlife claimed to have seen a Thylacine specimen in Pyengana region of northeastern Tasmania.
- In 2005, a German tourist claimed to have clicked photographs of Thylacine, but the authenticity of the snaps has not yet been developed.
The Australian Museum in Sydney started a cloning project in 1999. Its primary goal was to restore this species from extinction. However, many molecular biologists brushed off the de-extinction project as a public relations stunt. In late 2002, the researchers were able to extract replicable DNA, but after three years, the museum declared that they are stopping the project as the extracted DNA was not in usable condition. In May 2005, Professor Michael Archer (then University of New South Wales’ Dean of Science) announced that that the project was being restarted by interested research institutes and universities.
In 2008, a group of scientists sequenced the complete Thylacine mitochondrial genome from museum specimens. At TED 2013, Mike Archer spoke regarding the possibilities of de-extinction of Thylacine and Gastric Brooding Frog.