If you haven’t already, take a few minutes to watch this YouTube video. Think about what you are watching. The animal in the grainy film is extinct. When the last member of its species died out, a significant branch of the tree of life was pruned. Yet, it happened so recently that we were able to film the anxious movements of one of the last individuals, confined to a primitive cage in its homeland.
One thing we like to stress here on TwilightBeasts, is that extinction is a process, and an ongoing one at that. Look at the Australian island state of Tasmania. Here, until very recently you could find the incomparable Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), melancholy star of the video above. The Tasmanian tiger, pouched wolf, or one of a dozen other synonyms was the largest and latest surviving marsupial carnivore of modern times. An uncanny mix of tiger-like stripes, stiff kangaroo tail, backwards wombat pouch, and lupine head, the Thylacine was and is an icon. Go to Hobart today and you can drink a Thylacine beer, while writing out your Thylacine postcard and then sticking a Thylacine stamp on it. It’s very changed days from 79 years before, when the last Tassie tiger died alone and exposed in a Hobart zoo. Many people at the time saw it as simply an inevitable side-effect of “progress”. The end of the Thylacine was set in motion by public opinion that it was a menace to the sheep farming essential to Tasmania’s economy. A bounty was placed on its head and the annual payouts paint a bleak picture of overharvesting and a slide into the abyss. Stark as a simple line on a graph.
It wasn’t always like this. The Thylacine came from a long and distinguished lineage of marsupial carnivores, distantly related to the extinct marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) and more closely related to the extant Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). Many fossil Thylacines are also known including the large and imposing Thylacinus potens from near Alice Springs and the Miocene Thylacinus yorkellus. Like many of the megafauna, the Pleistocene was the Thylacine’s salad days. Then it was found not just in Tasmania, but all over Australia, and even in Papua New Guinea (since it is on the marsupial side of Wallace’s and Lydekker’s line, Papua has a fauna dominated by tree kangaroos, wallabies, and possums). The decline of the Thylacine outside Tasmania is generally thought to be due to competition with introduced dingoes (in Australia) and singing dogs (in New Guinea). The relatively recent introduction of the ancestor of the dingo to Australia by aboriginal people came after the formation of the Bass strait, so the dingo never made it to Tasmania. The long history of the Thylacine in mainland Australia is attested to by many examples of aboriginal rock art that show the strikingly striped animal. Perhaps the most potent reminder of the Thylacine’s recent survival in Australia comes from a fantastic find in the caves under the inhospitable Nullarbor plain in West Australia. Here, cavers found a Thylacine mummy, preserved down to the distinctive colours in its fur. And of course here is a good time to get to the question that always comes up when the Tasmanian tiger is discussed: is it still around? People are still reporting sightings of Thylacines in Tasmania (and more surprisingly, in mainland Australia too). Some of the sightings are undoubtedly mangy foxes and feral dogs, misidentified wild animals seen for a fraction of a second by unreliable witnesses. However, there are some sightings that cannot be easily dismissed. Sightings by trained park rangers, professional biologists, and other trustworthy individuals who are adamant that they know what they saw. Growing up beside Loch Ness means I am not easily convinced by what people think they see, but part of me longs for the Thylacine to have made it. Hiding from the sight of man, who was so instrumental in its decimation, surviving in the wild and untravelled bush. Certainly if the Thylacine were to be rediscovered it would be the zoological event of the century. But I think it may all just be so much wishful thinking. Our collective guilty conscience over the wanton destruction of this beautiful and unique species.
Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)
The Thylacine Museum http://www.naturalworlds.org/thylacine/
Magnificent Survivor http://www.naturalworlds.org/tigerbook/
Krajewski, C., A. C. Driskell, P. R. Baverstock, and M. J. Braun. “Phylogenetic-Relationships of the Thylacine (Mammalia, Thylacinidae) among Dasyuroid Marsupials – Evidence from Cytochrome-B DNA-Sequences.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 250, no. 1327 (Oct 22 1992): 19-27.[Abstract]
Miller, W., D. I. Drautz, J. E. Janecka, A. M. Lesk, A. Ratan, L. P. Tomsho, M. Packard, et al. “The Mitochondrial Genome Sequence of the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus).” Genome Res 19, no. 2 (Feb 2009): 213-20.[Full Text]
van Deusen, H. M. “First New Guinea Record of Thylacinus.” Journal of Mammalogy 44, no. 2 (1963): 279-80.[Full Text]
Yates, A. M. “New Craniodental Remains of Thylacinus Potens (Dasyuromorphia: Thylacinidae), a Carnivorous Marsupial from the Late Miocene Alcoota Local Fauna of Central Australia.” PeerJ 2 (2014): e547.[Full Text]
Yates, A. M. “Thylacinus (Marsupialia: Thylacinidae) from the Mio-Pliocene Boundary and the Diversity of Late Neogene Thylacinids in Australia.” PeerJ 3 (2015): e931.[Full Text]