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The Thylacine

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On 7 September, 1936, Hobart Zoo in Tasmania lost its last Tasmanian Wolf. Little did they know that she was the last of her kind anywhere in the world to ever be recorded. With her, a species died.

What was the Thylacine?

The Thylacine was Australia's last large native carnivore. It was a marsupial, like a kangaroo, with a pouch for its young. The Thylacine is a classic example of convergent evolution. This is when two animals that are not closely related evolve to fill similar niches and in the process evolve into similar-looking forms. Just compare the Thylacine to any placental wolf or fox. At about six feet long, it looked much like a sandy-coloured wolf, with dark stripes across its back and a long, stiff, kangaroo-like tail. It went by many names - Tasmanian Wolf, Tasmanian Tiger, Hyaena Possum... - but its Latin name describes it best - Thylacinus cynocephalus, 'Pouched Dog with a Wolf's Face'.

History of the Thylacine

The Thylacine was the largest marsupial predator of recent times, at least since the extinction of Thylacoleo, the Marsupial Lion, at the end of the last Ice Age. It evolved in Australia to fill the same niche as placental wolves and dogs, from a hopping ancestor, as can be seen by its longer back legs.

It lived across mainland Australia until about 3000 years ago, disappearing mainly as a result of the introduction of the dingo by settlers from Indonesia. As a placental mammal, the dingo could breed faster and produce more young than the marsupial Thylacine, so in direct competition, the latter died out.

Fortunately, the dingo did not reach the island of Tasmania, which became a temporary safe haven for the Thylacine, until the arrival of Europeans in the early 18th Century. They transformed Tasmania into a place to raise sheep for food and the wool industry, which destroyed the habitat of the Thylacine's main prey of wallabies and small marsupials.

With less prey around, some Thylacines would have taken sheep, but most sheep deaths were probably caused by feral dogs. The belief at the time was that marsupials were more primitive than placentals, which made the Thylacine the perfect scapegoat. As a result, they were branded 'Vermin' and a bounty was put on each Thylacine head. Thousands of animals were killed, the peak being reached in 1900, when 172 bounties were collected.

After this, there was a rapid decline in Thylacines killed or even seen. Those that were killed seemed dazed and confused, and did not act like wild animals. It seems that a disease was rife in the population, killing the remaining Thylacines. In 1931, a farmer in Tasmania shot the last recorded wild Thylacine.

Benjamin, the Last Thylacine

Benjamin was the last Thylacine in captivity. She was captured as a cub in February, 1924, and lived for 12 years at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania, before she passed away on 7 September, 1936. Despite observation by experts, the fact that she was female was not established until after her death.

She was one of the few Thylacines to have been captured on film and, it would seem, the last living Thylacine ever to be seen by people. Ironically, for the last two months of her life, she was fully protected by law.

Is the Thylacine Still Around?

Despite being officially classified as 'extinct' in 1986, unofficially there have been many sightings and reports of Thylacines from Tasmania and mainland Australia, and even as far afield as Indonesia and England. The most famous sighting was made in 1982 by a National Parks and Wildlife Officer in Tasmania. Although it was night and raining when he saw the Thylacine, his account remains the best indication yet that Thylacines still live in Tasmania.

The Cloning Debate

As it seems more and more likely that there are no living Thylacines left in the world, scientists are turning to cloning as another way of bringing back the Thylacine. In the 19th Century, when the collecting of preserved animals was at its peak, some Thylacine pouch young were placed in sealed jars of alcohol. These preserved young could help to bring back their species. It could be possible to extract DNA from the cells of the cubs, and place it into an egg cell of the closely related Tasmanian Devil. If this is successful, within about ten years, the first cloned Thylacine cubs could be born.

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