The Thylacine: “The World’s Most Common Extinct Animal”

James Orr

 According to the IUCN, Tasmanian Wolves went extinct in 1936. But since then there have been almost 4,000 recorded sightings of this incredible animal. Something doesn’t add up.

If I could travel back in time to catch a glimpse of one extinct animal to see what it was like, it wouldn’t be a Tyrannosaurus rex or a wooly mammoth that I would visit, it would be the Tasmanian wolf.

There hasn’t been any solid proof of the existence of this incredible marsupial carnivore since the last Thlyacine, named ‘Benjamin’, died in 1936 in Tasmania’s Hobart zoo when it was accidentally locked outside of its shelter overnight and froze to death. [1]

1st image
One of the last Tasmanian Wolves in Captivity. Image source

 

The Tasmanian wolf, sometimes called the Tasmanian tiger is a marsupial despite its appearance and its common names. It shows stunning convergent evolution with wolves and other members of the order carnivora (eutherians) but it is much more closely related to kangaroos and koalas! Its scientific name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, this translates as “dog-headed pouched one”.

The Thylacine filled the same niches as the tiger and the wolf in that they were apex predators. These marsupial top ‘dogs’ would have fed on other marsupials, perhaps as large as kangaroos, as well as birds. The distinctive stripes along their back would have been perfect camouflage in forests and because of this it has been suggested that the Tasmanian wolf was an ambush predator – which would make its other common name, Tasmanian tiger, much more appropriate. [2]

 

Timeline:

4 million years ago: The modern Thylacine appeared. It was found across Australia and also on the Islands of New Guinea and Tasmania.

50,000 years ago:  Modern humans colonised Australia.

4,000 years ago: Australia is colonised by the dingo, an invasive species with a large amount of niche overlap with the Thylacine.

3,000 years ago: There are extraordinary cave paintings of Tasmanian wolves dating back to this time that were found in the Burrup Peninsula, in northwest Australia. [3]

 

Ubirr
3,000 year old cave painting of a Thylacine. Image source

2000 years ago: Extinct on mainland Australia.

1888: A bounty was put on Tasmanian wolves because they were blamed with the death of livestock. The Tasmanian government paid £1 for each head. Over 2,000 bounties were paid out.

1930: Wilf Batty was the last man to kill a thylacine in the wild [1]

July 1936: The Thylacine was put under protection by the Tasmanian government.

September 1936: The last known Thylacine, ‘Benjamin’ died in captivity due to neglect.

1982: Despite many expeditions and research there had been no clear evidence of the Thylacine in the wild in over 50 years. The IUCN declared the Thylacine as an extinct species.

2015: The most recent claimed sightings recorded by the Thylacine research unit. [4]

Wilf_Batty_last_wild_Thylacine
Wilf Batty with his ‘trophy’. Image source 

 

Extinction

The Thylacine survived the initial surge of extinction, which followed the arrival of humans on the continent and devastated most of the Australian megafauna. Eventually the presence of humans and the changes to the environment they brought about were too much. Direct pressures of hunting, habitat loss through deforestation for agriculture and the extinction of the Thylacine’s main prey species, the Tasmanian hen, all contributed to the Tasmanian wolf’s decline. It was perhaps the human mediated introduction of the dingo and of feral dogs that was most detrimental for this carnivorous marsupial. A recurring theme of invasive biology is that the native species that has the greatest niche overlap with the invasive species suffers most. Not only did dingos and wild dogs compete with the Thylacine for prey but it has been suggested that they introduced a distemper-like disease that further led to the extinction of the Tasmanian wolf. [2]

 

How do you explain the 4,000 sightings?

There is no other extinct species that is as frequently ‘seen’ as the Thylacine. This falls into the pseudoscience of Cryptozoology – the search for animals whose existence has not been proven. Some famous cryptids (the name given to these questionable species) include Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Mermaids and the Yeti.

Cryptozoology
A collection of cryptids. Image source

 

Surprisingly there are some cryptozoological success stories! The Coelacanth (fish) was thought to be extinct for 65 million years before it was first rediscovered off the coast of the Comoros islands near South Africa in 1938 and then a second population was found in Indonesia in 1999.

And would it really be so unbelievable if there were a small population of Tasmanian wolves surviving in a remote area of the island? Tasmania is huge (1.6 million acres) and there are vast areas still relatively untouched by humans.

Since the 30s there has been active searching often led by prestigious scientists. In 2013 a group of British naturalists claimed that there was ‘no doubt’ that the Thylacine was still out there. They claimed to have found droppings that could only belong to the Thylacine and that there are too many credible sources of sightings of the animal. They think that it is only a matter of time before the Thylacine will be re-found. [5]

Or are all of those 4,000 sightings just mistaken dingoes, feral dogs, pranks or overly active imaginations?

 

Sightings on map
Map of Tasmania with claimed sightings of Tasmanian wolves. Image source

 

In all likelihood there are no Tasmanian wolves alive today. But wouldn’t it be brilliant if there were? David Fleay, an influencial Australian naturalist, captured the last footage of a living Thylacine in 1933. The video shows Benjamin three years before it was locked out of its shelter. Hopefully we don’t leave too many more species out in the cold.

 

References

1 =http://www.themortonreport.com/discoveries/paranormal/is-the-extinct-thylacine-still-alive/

2 =http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/04/29/rsbl.2011.0364.short

3= http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/ancient/AncientRepublish_1265476.htm

4 = http://www.thylacineresearchunit.org

5 = http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/11/zoologists-on-the-hunt-for-tasmanian-tiger-declare-no-doubt-species-still-alive

Featured Image: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/300404237614455922/

 

 

 

 

 

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