Sadly, The Tasmanian Tiger probably is extinct after all

Thylacines at National Zoo, Washington D.C., c. 1903 (Wikimedia Commons).

On Monday, Twitter lit up with the hashtag #Thylacine. “We found a thylacine” declared Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia (TAGOA), in a video posted to Youtube. When checking the SD card of an automatic camera in remote north-eastern Tasmania, Waters claimed to have found photos of three thylacines — two adults and a joey. This would be proof that the animal, officially considered to be extinct since 1936, was both alive and breeding. There was, he admitted, some ambiguity about the two adults, but the joey undeniably a thylacine. “The baby has stripes, a stiff tail, the hock, the coarse hair, it’s the right colour, it’s a quadruped, it’s stocky and it’s got the right-shaped ears” he said.

Waters sent the photos to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery to be verified by Nick Mooney, the honorary curator of vertebrate zoology and official assessor of any evidence of the thylacine’s continued existence. And to the crushing disappointment of thylacine enthusiasts worldwide, Mooney concluded that the creatures in the photos were highly unlikely to be thylacines. Rather, they were probably Tasmanian pademelons, short and tubby forest-dwelling relatives of the kangaroo which would have made up a large part of a thylacine’s diet. This is not the first time Mooney has poured cold water on the hopes of those who believe there is some chance the Tasmanian tiger still lives — he concluded that a 2017 video purporting to show a thylacine actually showed a spotted quoll — and it probably won’t be the last. It’s hard to let go of the thylacine.

The Tasmanian Tiger’s Troubled History

The thylacine was the largest marsupial carnivore to survive into historical times. At its height it was found throughout Australia and New Guinea — the apex predator of environments from steaming tropical forests to the cold Tasmanian highlands. An adult thylacine was the size of a wolf or large dog. Its canine appearance gave it both its scientific name cynocephalus (dog-headed) and one of its nicknames, the Tasmanian wolf. Its other and more common Nickname, the Tasmanian tiger, comes from its stripes.

Female thylacine carrying a joey in her pouch. As thylacines did not breed in captivity, photos showing mothers and young are rare (Wikimedia Commons).

But it was neither wolf nor tiger, being completely unrelated to any canine or feline carnivore from the old world. It was a marsupial, like the kangaroo, koala or wombat, and females carried their young around in a pouch. The name thylacine and the scientific name of its genus, thylacinus, come from the Greek word for pouch, thýlakos. The similarity between thylacines and dogs is one of the animal kingdom’s most remarkable examples of convergent evolution. The most recent common ancestor of the thylacine and the dog was a rat-like creature living amongst the dinosaurs, yet the skulls of the thylacine and the wolf are almost indistinguishable. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote in The Ancestors’ Tale of how this similarity was used to trap zoology students at Oxford University:

[Thylacines] are easy to tell from a true dog because of the stripes on the back but the skeleton is harder to distinguish. Zoology students at Oxford had to identify 100 zoological specimens as part of the final exam. Word soon got around that, if ever a ‘dog’ skull was given, it was safe to identify it as Thylacinus on the grounds that anything as obvious as a dog skull had to be a catch. Then one year the examiners, to their credit, double bluffed and put in a real dog skull. The easiest way to tell the difference is by the two prominent holes in the palate bone, which are characteristic of marsupials generally.

Skull of the thylacine (left) and wolf (right) (Wikimedia Commons).

The thylacine co-existed for millennia alongside indigenous Australians, who depicted it in their distinctive rock art. The remains of a thylacine were found in a cave in Western Australia, mummified for more than three thousand years by the cold and dry air.

Then the dingo, a relative of the domestic dog, arrived in Australia, carried on the canoes of a seafaring people. Possibly the Austronesians, who spread throughout Indonesia between three and four thousand years ago. Australian marsupials, having evolved in isolation, have always struggled to compete with placental mammals from Eurasia. By the time the first Europeans arrived in Australia in the seventeenth century, the thylacine was extinct on the mainland. But dingoes never reached Tasmania, and so the thylacine held on, the island becoming its last refuge.

The British founded their first settlement in Tasmania in 1803, and soon the island was a major destination for convicts transported from Britain and Ireland. Thylacines were already rare and Europeans only encountered them occasionally, but as they claimed more and more of Tasmania’s land for pasture they began to see more of them. Fearing they would prey on sheep, the Tasmanian government paid a bounty of £1 per full-grown animal and 10 shillings per joey between 1888 and 1909. More than 2,180 bounties were claimed. As on the mainland, they now needed to compete with wild dogs. Introduced diseases and habitat loss further devastated the population, which was probably not larger than five thousand to begin with. Some thylacines were trapped live and sent to zoos worldwide, but they would not breed in captivity, and the last thylacine outside of Tasmania died at London Zoo in 1931.

As the thylacine became rare in the twentieth century, the nascent conservation movement began to call for its preservation. Their efforts bore fruit, but much too late. On 10 July 1936, the Tasmanian Government belatedly declared the thylacine a protected species and began to explore the possibility of establishing a reserve for them. But the last known wild thylacine had been shot in May 1930 and there was, at this point, only one left in captivity. Named Benjamin, he was kept at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart. On 7 September 1936, Benjamin died, and the thylacine was gone.

Farmer Wilf Batty shot this thylacine in May 1930 when he found it in his hen house. It was the last confirmed wild thylacine (Wikimedia Commons).

The Search for the Thylacine

Has anybody seen a Tasmanian tiger lately?” asked a 10 February 1937 article in the Launceston Examiner. Some people had, but there has never been definite evidence of a thylacine living in the wild since 1930. Still, there has been a steady stream of reported sightings, not only in Tasmania, but also in mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea. Cryptozoologists have pored over dark photos showing what could be a striped rump disappearing into the undergrowth deep in a Tasmanian forest, or studied blurry videos of a dog-like animal running in an ever-so-slightly un-doglike way through a field.

Some sightings are more credible than others. In 1982, Hans Narding, a researcher with the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service, woke suddenly in the back of his vehicle parked beside a remote road on a rainy night to see by the light of his torch “…a large thylacine, standing side-on some six to seven metres distant. It was an adult male in excellent condition with 12 stripes on a sandy coat. Eye reflection was pale yellow. It moved only once, opening its jaw and showing its teeth.” When Narding reached for his camera, the creature vanished. Given that Narding was a reliable witness and the description was very detailed, the Tasmanian Government launched a massive search in the area. It found nothing. Did Narding see a thylacine, or was it a trick of the mind woken suddenly from sleep? We will never know.

A 2021 analysis of all reported sightings of thylacines since 1910 concluded that there is good evidence that thylacines survived to 1960 and some evidence they survived to 1980. For example, reported sightings of similar-looking animals in the same area by independent witnesses. The paper has not yet been peer-reviewed, but the argument is plausible.

Could the thylacine still survive? Tasmania is about the size of Ireland or Maine, and has a human population somewhat over half a million now. Much of the state is still wilderness, particularly in the west, and 42% is now protected in national parks. Some of its wild areas are very rugged and rarely-visited, giving hope that some remnant thylacine population still lives in the depths of the forests or among the glades of the mountains.

However, it’s highly unlikely. Since 2000, researchers have deployed hundreds of camera traps and other automatic detectors throughout Tasmania’s forests. This method has been used to find elusive animals before. For example, the Zanzibar leopard was caught on a camera trap in 2018 despite believed to have been extinct for 25 years. But in two decades, the camera traps in Tasmania have not revealed a thylacine, nor has anyone found recent remains of a dead one. Even if thylacines did live beyond their 1936 extinction date, the wild population was likely too small to have been self-sustaining. But the search continues, and the photos and videos keep coming to Nick Mooney at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. “It’s very difficult to believe that there is enough habitat to support a viable population undetected” he told the press after a high-profile reported sighting in 1995. “In the wildest parts of the State, the south west and the west, the habitat’s so poor that it is inconceivable that they have survived. Every year that goes past it becomes more and more unlikely.” It is even more unlikely now, twenty-six years further on.

Conclusion

Tasmanian coat of arms, with thylacines (Wikimedia Commons).

The thylacine is a leading candidate for a Jurassic Park-style ‘de-extinction’ using cloning technology and existing samples. This is on the horizon of our knowledge of science, not impossible but not forthcoming either. And it raises just as many questions as it answers. If we did create a thylacine, what would be the ethical thing to do with it?

Extinction is part of evolution, and the overwhelming majority of animals which have ever lived are now extinct. Still, there is something achingly tragic in the story of this animal which was so unusual and whose extinction was so preventable. The thylacine has become a symbol of human-caused extinction. In Australia, September 7 is National Threatened Species Day.

The thylacine reminds us that our decisions can have irreversible consequences. We have learned a lot about conservation in the past century, but we cannot use it to save the thylacine. But we can preserve what we still have. For example, the thylacine’s smaller and more-cantankerous relative, the Tasmanian devil, was driven to near-extinction in the early twentieth century, but is now the subject of a world-class conservation program. The species is still in real danger due to its low genetic diversity and the spread of a contagious facial cancer, but it is still alive in both the wild and in captive populations.

Benjamin, the last known thylacine, at Beaumaris Zoo. Thylacines could open their jaws more widely than any canid or feline (Wikimedia Commons).

Shortly before Benjamin, the last known thylacine, died, naturalist David Fleay filmed him at Beaumaris Zoo. He left us a few haunting black-and-white silent videos of the obviously distressed and agitated predator pacing around his small and bare enclosure. Zookeepers, in those days, had little idea of the importance of keeping an animal in its habitat. Benjamin is very canine, but also, perhaps, slightly evocative of the kangaroo when he stands on his hind legs. And, at the same time, completely unique. Sadly, an animal unlikely to ever be seen again.

Information on how to support Tasmanian devil conservation is available on the website of the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water, Parks and the Environment.

Adam Wakeling is an Australian writer, lawyer and historian. He is online at https://www.amwakeling.com/ and on Twitter @AdamMWakeling.

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