The Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger was not a tiger but the largest surviving marsupial predator in modern Australia, and its outlying islands of Tasmania and New Guinea.
It was called a ‘tiger’ because it had stripes across its lower back which faded with age. It was also called the Tasmanian Wolf, which seems a more likely description given its looks. It does superficially resemble a dingo, being much the same size and colouring. The dingo is a domestic dog (sub-species of the Grey Wolf) introduced to Australia some 40,000 years ago by the people now considered the aboriginal (as in original) settlers.
Thylacine skulls were used once used in comparative anatomy examinations because they are virtually indistinguishable from a wolf. This is an example of convergent evolution where two unrelated animals with similar lifestyles closely resemble each other. In truth Thylacines could not be more unrelated to dingoes and wolves as they are marsupials, like the majority of native Australian mammals. The Thylacines closest living relative is the Tasmanian Devil.
Around 170 million years ago, during the dinosaur dominated Jurassic, primitive mammals diverged into placental and marsupial. It was once believed placental mammals had an advanced reproduction system and we out competed marsupials. These days both methods are considered equally effective. Extinction is often a matter of environmental change and bad luck.
Placentals are us, dogs, cats, sheep, cows, elephants, whales: almost everything in fact. The females have specialised wombs allowing them to extend pregnancy until the foetus is almost fully developed. We placentals evolved in China and spread through the rest of the world where marsupials became extinct, leaving us dominant.
Marsupials have pouches (think kangaroo). They give birth to tiny underdeveloped offspring that scramble slug-like through their mother’s fur into her pouch where they lock on to a nipple until developed. Marsupials evolved in North America before finding their way to the southern landmass of South America, Antarctica and Australia (by this time Africa had already broken away).
Three million years ago, when North and South America collided, placental mammals moved south and possums moved into North America where they had gone extinct some 50 million years before. When Antarctica and Australia separated marsupials were left isolated, giving rise to some extraordinary animals such as the thylacine (‘marsupial wolf’) and thylacoleo (‘marsupial lion’).
Along with other large animals in Australia their extinction coincides with humans arriving. Although it is now believed climate change played a decisive role.
Thylacine survived on Tasmania until modern times. Like their cousins the Tasmanian Devil, they were considered a threat to farm animals. On scant evidence, the Tasmanian government gave a bounty of roughly £100+ (in today’s value) per head and half that for pups. Records show they paid out 2,184 bounties, but many more thylacines may have been killed. Erosion of habitat and new diseases also played a part.
By the 1920s the animal was very rare. Yet the government prevaricated over giving them protected status. In 1930 the last wild thylacine (a male) was shot by a farmer who had seen it prowling around his home for a few weeks. A few remained in zoos but over the next few years they all died out.
A few months after the government finally declared them a protected species, early in July, the last thylacine in captivity died in Hobart Zoo, possibly of neglect, in September 1936.
That is your fantastic beast.
So, where to find them?
Sadly, nowhere outside stuffed specimens in museums.
Despite reported sightings and some ambiguous photographs it has not been demonstrated they are not extinct. There have been attempts to recover DNA from remains but so far it has been too badly damaged to be useful. However the genetic resurrection of the thylacine does remain an Australian Holy Grail.
I have always been a fan of Australian endemic fauna: both extant and extinct.
I am grateful to the following people who inspired me to get off my bum. Great teamwork guys
Sally Cronin’ Smorgasbord for publicising the following
Norah Colvin for her great interview with children’s author
Aleesah Darlinson for writing– Stripes in the Forest: the Story of the last wild thylacine