Lost Forever

Thylacine

Black and white photo of two thylacines in a zoo

You’ve probably heard of the Tasmanian devil. It’s a noisy, aggressive creature that is sometimes seen spinning around in cartoons. It also has the distinction of being the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial. But a century ago, the Tasmanian devil didn’t hold that title – it was beaten in size by another Tasmanian resident, the thylacine.

The thylacine looked remarkably like a striped dog or wolf – and, for that reason, it was often called the Tasmanian wolf. But this is a misleading name because the thylacine, as already mentioned, was a marsupial. The fact that there is no close relationship between the thylacine and the dog family makes this resemblance all the more remarkable – it’s an example of convergent evolution (which you can learn more about here).

The bone-crunching jaws of the thylacine, operated by powerful muscles, could open extremely wide, up to 120 degrees. In fact, it could achieve the ‘largest angle of gape’ of any known mammal, beating even the clouded leopard. Meanwhile, its rigid, muscular tail acted as a prop so that it could easily balance on its hind legs. The female’s pouch opened backwards, and, uniquely among Australian marsupials, the male had one as well. This may have acted as a sheath into which the male’s scrotal sac could be withdrawn, and it probably protected his external genitalia as he ran through dense undergrowth.

Black and white photo of a thylacine in a zoo
The thylacine is also sometimes called the Tasmanian tiger because of its striped lower back and rump.

A Tragic Tale   

The thylacine wasn’t always restricted to just Tasmania; it once ranged across the whole of mainland Australia and New Guinea too. But around 4,000 years ago, the human population of Australia began to grow, putting pressure on the thylacine. Asian people who visited Australia, perhaps to trade with the native Aboriginals, also brought with them a type of dog we now call the dingo. These people did not stay… but the dingoes did.

The versatile dingoes spread throughout the continent, eating the same sort of prey that the thylacine hunted and out-competing them for food. As dingo numbers increased, thylacine numbers decreased. By the time Europeans began to colonise Australia in the late 18th century, the thylacine was probably already completely extinct on the mainland, persisting only on the island of Tasmania, where the dingoes hadn’t reached.

Unfortunately, Tasmania did not remain a safe sanctuary for very long. Eventually, Europeans settled there as well. They named the thylacine both the Tasmanian wolf and the Tasmanian tiger, not only because of its superficial resemblance to those other animals, but also because, as far as the Europeans were concerned, the island of Tasmania was the only place where it lived, or had ever lived.

The European settlers were not particularly fond of the thylacine, it has to be said. Being a large carnivore, it was anathema to poultry and sheep farmers, who declared it a potential menace and often shot it on sight. It’s true that the thylacine was an apex predator, probably preying upon kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and possums, but despite its supposedly fierce nature, it was quite shy and secretive. We now know that it didn’t prey upon livestock nearly as much as people thought at the time, as it would likely have tried to avoid humans wherever possible, and there is no evidence that it significantly impacted the sheep industry in any way.

But back in the late 19th century, the deaths or disappearance of any livestock was often attributed to predation by the thylacine, and, in 1886, the powerful farming lobby successfully campaigned for a state-wide bounty to be placed on the animal’s head. For several years, this bounty was £1 for a dead adult and half that for a pup. Thanks to this government-endorsed slaughter, the thylacine was persecuted mercilessly.

The thylacine hung on in Tasmania for some time, but by the 1920s it had become a very rare animal indeed. Relentless hunting, the loss of woodland to provide more pasture for sheep, competition with feral dogs, and the inability to cope with new diseases that the dogs brought with them pushed the thylacine to the very edge. But even as the species slipped towards extinction, pressure from farmers prevented anything from being done about it.

Black and white photo of a thylacine in a zoo
The scientific name of the thylacine is Thylacinus cynocephalus, which means ‘dog-headed pouched one’.

The Last Thylacine?

The last scientifically validated thylacine was caught in the early 1930s (the exact year is disputed) and housed in Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. Later called Benjamin, this animal lived at the zoo for three years. Benjamin’s sex has sometimes been questioned due to the thylacine’s unisex pouch and the fact that the zoo never kept official records, but detailed examination of grainy black-and-white film footage of Benjamin in 2011 revealed that its scrotum could be seen in one of the frames, confirming that the animal was indeed a male.

Unfortunately for Benjamin, personnel problems developed at Hobart Zoo during 1935-36, which meant the animals were neglected during the winter, and the thylacine was ‘left exposed both day and night in the open, wire-topped cage, with no access to its sheltered den’. On the night of 7 September 1936, Benjamin died, unattended by his keepers.

Benjamin’s death wasn’t reported in the media at the time, for Hobart Zoo expected that it would soon obtain a replacement thylacine. But no replacement was ever found. Official protection of the species by the Tasmanian government, which outlawed the killing of thylacines, had only been granted earlier that year, on 10 July. It was far, far too late. Just 59 days later, Benjamin died in Hobart Zoo, the last known individual of his kind.

The Most Common Extinct Animal

Few people cared when the thylacine was reduced to a tiny, fragmented population. It was only when the species was suspected to have become extinct that people finally sat up and started paying attention. A number of alleged thylacine sightings in the years following Benjamin’s death prompted expeditions to try and locate any remaining individuals. Early missions found tentative proof of the thylacine’s continued existence – footprints and droppings that may have belonged to the animal, for example, and even possible vocalisations – but nothing that could be considered conclusive. Later searches, even those equipped with automatic camera traps, were also unsuccessful.

Finally, in 1982, after several decades of no reliable sightings and no concrete evidence, the thylacine was declared officially extinct.

Even since then, though, reported sightings of thylacines in the wild – even on mainland Australia – have continued, resulting in the thylacine being dubbed ‘the world’s most common extinct animal’. There are plenty of amateur naturalists in Tasmania who swear that the thylacine is still alive – and not all of them are obvious hoaxers or wishful romantics. Some people have even devoted their entire lives to finding them. Is this a classic case of only appreciating something after it’s gone? Or is there a chance that the thylacine still exists somewhere, hiding in remote and little-visited parts of Tasmania even to this day?

The official records state that the thylacine became extinct on 7 September 1936 with the death of the last known individual, Benjamin. However, I think it is not only possible but probable that a few individuals clung to survival in the Tasmanian wilderness for a little while longer – perhaps even for a few decades. When, exactly, the species definitively died out – when the very last animal, alone in the Tasmanian wilderness, finally expired – we will never know for certain.

But regardless of when it died out, it is now clear that, despite what many people hope even to this day, the thylacine does not still inhabit this planet. It, like so many animals before and after, was a victim of the Sixth Extinction.

The fact that we so desperately want the thylacine to still be out there is unsurprising. We feel guilt over its extinction. Many animals that have become extinct throughout history, even those that we humans unquestionably killed off, such as the dodo, the great auk, and the quagga, seem to belong in the distant past. But the thylacine became extinct in modern history. In living memory. On top of that, the extinction of the thylacine wasn’t the unintended consequence of humans destroying their habitat, as is happening all around the world today. No, it died out because we purposely eradicated it, as fast as we could. We actively wanted it dead.

And that, I think, makes us feel its loss much more keenly.

Author

  • With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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