On the 7th of September each year, Australia observes National Threatened Species Day, so we thought this would be a good time to look at a species we couldn’t save. The following is an extract from the Encyclopedia of Mammals on the extinct thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger).
Up to the time of its extinction, the thylacine was the largest of recent marsupial carnivores. Fossil thylacines are widely scattered in Australia and New Guinea, but the living animal was confined in historical times to Tasmania.
Superficially, the thylacine resembled a dog. It stood about 60cm (24in) high at the shoulders, head–body length averaged 80cm (31.5in), and weight 15–35kg (33–77lb). The head was doglike with a short neck, and the body sloped away from the shoulders. The legs were also short, as in large dasyurids. The features that clearly distinguished the thylacine from dogs were a long (50cm/20in), stiff tail, which was thick at the base, and a coat pattern of black or brown stripes on a sandy yellow ground across the back.
Most of the information available on the behavior of the thylacine is either anecdotal or has been obtained from old film. It ran with diagonally opposing limbs moving alternately, could sit upright on its hindlimbs and tail rather like a kangaroo, and could leap 2–3m (6.5–10ft) with great agility. Thylacines appear to have hunted alone, and before Europeans settled in Tasmania they probably fed upon wallabies, possums, bandicoots, rodents, and birds. It is suggested that they caught prey by stealth rather than by chase.
At the time of European settlement, the thylacine appears to have been widespread in Tasmania, and was particularly common where settled areas adjoined dense forest. It was thought to rest during the day on hilly terrain in dense forest, emerging at night to feed in grassland and woodland.
From the early days of European settlement, the thylacine developed a reputation for killing sheep. As early as 1830, bounties were offered for killing thylacines, and the consequent destruction led to fears for the species’survival as early as 1850. Even so, the Tasmanian government introduced its own bounty scheme in 1888, and over the next 21 years, before the last bounty was paid, 2,268 animals were officially killed. The number of bounties paid had declined sharply by the end of this period, and it is thought that epidemic disease combined with hunting to bring about the thylacine’s final disappearance.
The last thylacine to be captured was taken in western Tasmania in 1933; it died in Hobart zoo in 1936. Since then the island has been searched thoroughly on a number of occasions, and even though occasional sightings continue to be reported to this day, the most recent survey concluded that there has been no positive evidence of thylacines since that time. In 1999, the Australian Museum in Sydney decided to explore the possibility of cloning a thylacine, using DNA from a pup preserved in alcohol in 1866, although it admitted that to do so successfully would require substantial advances in biogenetic techniques.
Adapted from the entry on the ‘Large Marsupial Carnivores’ in The Encyclopedia of Mammals edited by David MacDonald, which is available online as part of Oxford Reference. Copyright © Brown Bear Books 2013. David MacDonald is Founder and Director of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.
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Image credit: a 19th century print of a Thylacine Wolf from Australia. William Home Lizars. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.