In light of it being Australia Day today (January 26), I thought I’d share one of my countries’ coolest species.
The Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) or Thylacine, was the largest carnivorous marsupial (mammal with a pouch) of the modern world. Native to Australia and New Guinea, the thylacine was the last extant member of the family Thylacinidae, with fossil records of other species dating back to the early Miocene.
While they bare some resemblance to them, Thylacines were definitely not related to Canids. The similarities in teeth, raised heels and general morphology are an example of Convergent Evolution (where two separate species evolved similar features without having a recent common ancestor). Originally, the thylacine was considered closely related to the Tasmanian Devil, another species unique to the island, but recent genetic studies found that the Numbat is a closer relative.
Predominantly tan in colour, the most distinctive part of the thylacine is the dark stripes running down its back that give it the “Tiger” part of its name. These stripes are more predominant while young and fade as the animal ages.
The jaws of the thylacine were capably of opening to 120 degrees wide, as can be seen in the photo above. Previously it was thought these jaws were incredibly powerful, allowing them to take down large prey, but recent studies have shown that the jaws were actually quite feeble, indicating they more likely predated upon smaller animals, such as possums and bandicoots.
Populations on the Australian Mainland had already become sparse by the time of European settlement, with remnants mainly found on Tasmania. This is thought to have been a result of competition from the Dingo, which was introduced to the mainland around the same time as the indigenous people, theorised to be some 60,000 years ago.
Thylacines were persecuted as threats to farmers and were aggressively hunted, encouraged by bounties issued by the Tasmanian government and the Van Diemen’s Land Company, This, along with habitat loss, the introduction of disease and dogs to the island, contributed to the rapid decline in numbers and extinction in the wild in the 1930s.
The last known individual was held in Hobart Zoo for three years before dying of neglect in 1936, fifty nine days after the species had been granted official protection by the Tasmanian government. Since then, many unconfirmed sightings of Thylacines have emerged, although none conclusive enough to re-instate an Existing status. It remains a Cryptozoologist gold mine, and the search continues.