Thylacine – Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus)
Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus)
Distribution: Prehistorically, Australia and New Guinea; Historically, Tasmania.
Last Record: Night of 7 September 1936.
The thylacine was the largest marsupial predator to have survived into historic times. Before the introduction of the dingo to mainland Australia around four thousand years ago it was widespread on the mainland and in New Guinea. When first encountered by Europeans in the early nineteenth century it was restricted to the island of Tasmania. There, however, it occurred in a variety of habitats, but not apparently the dense rainforests of the southwest.
Thylacines were rather wolf-like in shape, males reaching around thirty-five and females twenty-five kilograms in weight. They seem to have hunted singly, in pairs and in family groups (male, female and one to three young), pursuing wallabies and other prey by scent, eventually running them to exhaustion or into ambush.
Lairs were often located among rocks, and young stayed with the female until they were well grown and able to hunt independently. The Tasmanian Aborigines occasionally hunted them, but would build a curious shelter over the bones, believing that if they were rained upon then very bad weather would follow.
Thylacines were persecuted into extinction. A bounty was paid on scalps and, as they became rarer, live and even dead animals commanded ever higher prices. The species was finally protected by law in Tasmania in 1936, the year of its extinction. The law came far too late, for the last capture of a wild thylacine had occurred three years earlier, in 1933.
The last thylacine to walk the earth was a female kept in Beaumaris Zoo near Hobart. Personnel problems developed at the zoo during 1935–36, which meant that the animals were neglected during the winter. The thylacine was ‘left exposed both night and day in the open, wire-topped cage, with no access to its sheltered den’. September brought extreme and unseasonal weather to Hobart. Night-time temperatures dropped to below zero at the beginning of the month, while a little later they soared above 38 degrees Celsius. On the night of 7 September the stress became too much for the last thylacine and, unattended by her keepers, she closed her eyes on the world for the last time.
It is possible that a few wild individuals roamed the island for a decade or two after this, for authentic-sounding reports were received until at least the 1940s. One concerned an old ‘dogger’ who claimed to have ‘put up a slut and three cubs out of a patch of man-ferns’ in the area that was shortly after flooded to form Lake King William. According to author Eric Guiler, who interviewed the hunter, he ‘continually dodged the issue as to whether the thylacines were killed or not’ after the man turned his dogs onto them, but Guiler strongly suspected that they were. Now all hope is lost, for many expensive searches have been made, yet no thylacine sighting has been authenticated for many years.
Thylacine at Hobart Zoo, 1930s
© Australian Museum
What is a Thylacine?
The Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus: dog-headed pouched-dog) is a large carnivorous marsupial now believed to be extinct. It was the only member of the family Thylacinidae to survive into modern times. It is also known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf.
What did it look like?
The Thylacine was sandy yellowish-brown to grey in colour and had 15 to 20 distinct dark stripes across the back from shoulders to tail. Although the large head was dog- or wolf-like, the tail was short and stiff and the legs were relatively short. Body hair was dense, short and soft, to 15mm in length.
It had short ears (about 80 mm long) that were erect, rounded and covered with short fur. Jaws were large and powerful and there were 46 teeth. Adult male Thylacine were larger on average than females.
The female Thylacine had a back-opening pouch. The litter size was up to four and the young were dependent on the mother until at least half-grown. Interestingly, males also had a back-opening, partial pouch.
What did it eat?
The Thylacine was mainly nocturnal or semi-nocturnal but was also out during the day. The animal moved at a slow pace, generally stiff in its movements. The Thylacine hunted singly or in pairs and mainly at night.
Thylacines preferred kangaroos and other marsupials, small rodents and birds. They were reported to have preyed on sheep and poultry after European colonisation, although the extent of this was almost certainly exaggerated. For example, a famous photo is now known to have been staged using a taxidermied Thylacine specimen with a dead chicken placed in its mouth.
Where did it live?
At one time the Thylacine was widespread over continental Australia, extending north to New Guinea and south to Tasmania. In recent times it was confined to Tasmania where its presence has not been established conclusively for more than seventy years. In Tasmania the species was best known from the north and east coast and midland plains region rather than from the mountains of the south-west.
Why did it become extinct?
Although the precise reasons for extinction of the Thylacine from mainland Australia are not known it appears to have declined as a result of competition with the Dingo and perhaps hunting pressure from humans. The Thylacine became extinct on the Australian mainland not less than 2000 years ago. Its decline and extinction in Tasmania was probably hastened by the introduction of dogs, but appears mainly due to direct human persecution as an alleged pest.
Indigenous Peoples and the Thylacine
Aboriginal rock-paintings of Thylacine-like animals are recognised from northern Australia including the Kimberley region of Western Australia. They have also been found on walls or overhangs on exposed rock surfaces in the Upper East Alligator region of Deaf Adder Creek and Cadell River crossing in the Northern Territory.
There is evidence to suggest that Aboriginal people in Tasmania used the Thylacine as a food item.
Is there a fossil Thylacine?
Fossil thylacines have been reported from Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland.
Work at the Riversleigh World Heritage fossil site in north-west Queensland has unearthed a spectacular array of thylacines dating from about 30 million years ago to almost 12 million years ago. At least seven different species are present, ranging from small specialised cat-sized individuals to fox-sized predators.
The most spectacular find has been an almost complete skeleton of a thylacine from the AL90 site at Riversleigh. First glimpsed in 1996 when a limestone boulder was cracked to reveal part of the skull after 17 million years in a limestone tomb. After many months of intricate preparation the skeleton has been reassembled.
The fossil record of thylacines is a powerful reminder of how important it is to learn from the past the messages for the future. In Riversleigh times there were several species but by 8 million years ago only one species remained, the Powerful Thylacine, Thylacinus potens.
The modern Thylacine made its appearance about 4 million years ago.
A mummified carcass of a Thylacine has been found in a cave on the Nullabor Plain. It lived about 4 to 5,000 years ago, just before the Dingo was introduced into Australia.
© Australian Museum