THE TASMANIAN TIGER - Thylacine



The Thylacine - more commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger is a large carnivorous marsupial, now believed to be extinct. 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.

It was the last living member of its family, Thylacinidae. However, specimens of other members of the family have been found in the fossil record. It was the only member of the family Thylacinidae to survive into modern times.

What did the Tasmanian tiger look like?

Descriptions of the Tasmanian tiger vary as evidence is restricted to preserved joey specimens, fossil records, skins and skeletal remains, black and white photographs and film of the animal in captivity, and accounts from the field.

The Thylacine was sandy yellowish-brown to grey in colour.

 Many European settlers drew direct comparisons with the hyena, because of its unusual stance and general demeanour. Its yellow-brown coat featured 13 to 21 distinctive dark stripes across its back, rump and the base of its tail, which earned the animal the nickname, - Tiger!

Although the large head was dog or wolf-like, the tail was short and stiff and the legs were relatively short. Its 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.

 There was slight sexual dimorphism with the males being larger than females on average.

The thylacine footprint is easy to distinguish from those of native and introduced species. Unlike foxes, cats, dogs, wombats or Tasmanian devils, thylacines had a very large rear pad and four obvious front pads, arranged in almost a straight line. The hind feet were similar to the forefeet but had four digits rather than five. Their claws were non-retractable.

The thylacine was noted as having a stiff and somewhat awkward gait, making it unable to run at high speed. It could also perform a bipedal hop, in a fashion similar to a kangaroo. This was demonstrated at various times by captive specimens. Furthermore, the thylacine was also able to balance on its hind legs and stand upright for brief periods.

Observers of the animal in the wild and in captivity noted that it would growl and hiss when agitated, often accompanied by a threat-yawn. During hunting it would emit a series of rapidly repeated guttural cough-like barks which were described as "yip-yap", "cay-yip" or "hop-hop-hop", probably for communication between the family pack members. It also had a long whining cry, probably for identification at distance, and a low snuffling noise used for communication between family members.

The early scientific studies suggested the thylacine possessed an acute sense of smell which enabled it to track prey, but scientific analysis of its brain structure has revealed that its olfactory bulbs were not well developed. It is likely to have relied on sight and sound when hunting instead. Some observers described it having a strong and distinctive smell, others described a faint, clean, animal odour, and some no odour at all. It is possible that the thylacine, like its relative, the Tasmanian devil, gave off an odour when agitated.

What did the Tasmanian tiger eat?

The Thylacine was mainly nocturnal or semi-nocturnal but was also out during the day. 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.

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.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that in the early part of the Twentieth Century an extremely virulent disease began to spread first through the wild then captive populations. Exactly what this disease was remains unknown but it was described as being similar to but distinct from canine distemper.

Another theory points to the fact that, by the time the Thylacine was confined to the island of Tasmania, the remaining specimens did not have sufficient genetic diversity to sustain the population.

A similar problem is currently affecting the Tasmanian devil, resulting in the spread of the fatal DFTD, or Devil Facial Tumour Disease.

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