Focus on Species: Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus)

Focus on Species: Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus)


Hey guys, I’m Austin Smith and welcome to
Focus on Species. Today we’re going to be talking about an incredibly unique animal
called the thylacine. Believed to have gone extinct in 1936, the thylacine was a large
carnivorous marsupial native to Australia. It is also commonly known as the Tasmanian
tiger, because of its distinctive stripes, or as the Tasmanian wolf, because of its resemblance
to canines through convergent evolution. Originally found on the island of New Guinea,
continental Australia, and the island of Tasmania, the thylacine appears in ancient aboriginal
rock art. By the time Europeans began to settle on the continent in the late eighteenth century,
however, the thylacine had gone completely extinct in New Guinea and nearly extinct on
the Australian mainland, almost certainly due to aboriginal hunting practices. The surviving
population of thylacine inhabited the island of Tasmania, along with several other endemic
species there, including the Tasmanian devil. The first definitive encounter between a European
and a thylacine occurred in 1792, but it was not until the early nineteenth century when
the first detailed descriptions of the animal were produced. In 1803, the British began
settlement of Tasmania and five years later, in 1808, the first known illustration of a
thylacine was published. Numerous representations were produced during the early nineteenth
century, like this painting from 1817, but they remained inaccurate in many ways. Eventually, more accurate illustrations began
to be produced like this one from 1861. Similar in appearance to a large, short-haired dog,
the thylacine had a long stiff tail that extended from its body much like that of a kangaroo.
Its color varied from light to dark brown with 13 to 21 dark stripes across its back.
The lifespan of the thylacine was anywhere between five to nine years. Females had a pouch, like other marsupials,
where they would carry their young pups. In this 1898 photograph of thylacines at the
Adelaide Zoo, the female in front can be seen bearing pups in her distended pouch. The animal’s jaws had the unusual ability
to extend open up to 120 degrees and were filled with sharp teeth for eating prey like
wallabies, wombats, and birds. The thylacine was also able to balance on its hind legs,
standing upright and performing a bipedal hop, much like a kangaroo, for brief periods
of time. The thylacine inhabited the woodlands and
coastal scrubland of Tasmania. It was generally noted to be a shy and secretive creature,
a nocturnal hunter, and usually avoided contact with humans.
As British settlement of Tasmania increased during the nineteenth century, the thylacine
began to be associated with numerous attacks on sheep and later poultry. This 1823 sketch
shows a trap that could be used to lure and capture thylacines. A bounty was created in
an attempt to reduce thylacine numbers as early as 1830. This 1869 photograph shows
a hunter with his trophy. Relentless targeting by ranchers and bounty hunters continued,
causing the species’ population to plummet. Between 1888 and 1909 the Tasmanian government
paid one pound per dead adult thylacine and ten shillings for a dead pup. Thousands of
the animals were killed during this period. In 1921, a photograph of a thylacine with
a chicken in its mouth helped to further the animal’s reputation as a poultry killer. Modern
research shows that the animal in the photograph was most likely a taxidermy specimen posed
specifically for the portrait. During the early twentieth century, as thylacine
numbers declined, a number of the animals were kept in zoos in Australia, Europe, and
the United States, such as this pair at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. photographed
in about 1903. Photographs, as well as a small number of motion picture films, of these captive
animals offer some of the most interesting images of the now presumed extinct creature.
In fact, there are no extant photographs of a living thylacine in the wild. Eventually, trapping for zoos, changes to
the natural environment of Tasmania, competition for prey from introduced species such as dogs
and foxes, disease, and continued bounty hunting decimated thylacine numbers until the population
became unsustainable. One of the last known wild thylacines was killed in Tasmania in
1930, photographed here with the farmer who shot the animal, along with his seemingly
frightened dog. The very last known wild individual was killed in 1933, found dead in a snare. The last captive thylacine was held by the
zoo in Hobart, Tasmania until September 7, 1936 when the animal died most likely due
to neglect. Since then several searches have been undertaken in attempts to discover surviving
populations of the thylacine in Tasmania, but with no convincing results that any survive.
Despite this, thousands of sightings of thylacine in Tasmania, as well as in parts of mainland
Australia continue to be reported into the twenty-first century. While no conclusive
evidence has been brought forward for the species continued existence, there is enough
information to suggest that the thylacine may still survive. During the first decade of the twenty-first
century, cloning a thylacine from a preserved specimen had been discussed. It is now known,
however, that the absence of a suitable surrogate species and the inability to extract the full
genome of a thylacine from the DNA of a museum specimen renders cloning of the animal almost
certainly an impossibility. In 2005, the compilation of the International
Thylacine Specimen Database was completed. This project has endeavored to catalogue and
digitally photograph all known surviving preserved material of thylacines held by museums, universities,
and private collections around the world. The database includes skins, skeletons, skulls,
and taxidermy mounts, as well as four adults and ten pups preserved in alcohol. A resource
like this stimulates further research about the thylacine and allows us to more thoroughly
understand this fascinating marsupial. Today, many Australians believe the thylacine
may still survive in remote regions of Tasmania or even the continent and new alleged sightings
continue to encourage these hopes. Regardless of this, the memory of the thylacine remains
an important part of Australian culture. Tasmania’s coat arms features two of the animals, and
the thylacine continues to appear in popular references. The Australian beer, Cascade Premium
Lager, even uses images of a thylacine on its bottles and packaging. Ultimately, the
story of the thylacine should remind us of how critical it is to manage the world’s endangered
animals, providing us an example of how easily a species can be brought to extinction. If you’d like to learn more about the thylacine,
I encourage you to take a look at some of the books and websites I’ve listed below.
One of the most thoroughly researched resources on the species is an online exhibit titled
The Thylacine Museum created by natural historian Cameron Campbell. The Thylacine Museum has
a vast collection of information, historic photographs, illustrations, and all of the
known extant film footage of the animals. Under the history section of the website,
alleged sightings of thylacines since their presumed extinction are discussed and analyzed
as well. I hope you join me again in discovering the
rich diversity of our world on the next episode of Focus on Species. If you enjoyed this episode,
be sure to let me know by liking the video or leaving a comment below. Questions are
also welcome. Also, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel and checking out my other
series such as Wanderlust where I explore our amazing world in adventures to incredible
locations. Thanks for watching.

18 thoughts on “Focus on Species: Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus)

  1. Thank you to share a wonderful information about this topic …. is sad to me to see how many spices not exist anymore… because the human being was responsable for this actions. 

  2. Excellent piece of work. There seems to e a bit of a crescendo of sightings in the state of Victoria recently and some in South Australia very recently. I hope we will have some proof soon. The Thylacine Museum is a great resource and there are good Facebook conversations too. The Thylacine Research Unit is also very good. Murray MacAllister has a very good page too.

  3. My great grandpa told me this little asshole used to hide in trees and jump on people pretty much killing them

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