The Tasmanian wolf was native to Australia and is more commonly known there as the Tasmanian tiger. A shy creature, it was misunderstood by European settlers who attacked it out of fear. The slaughter was relentless and was only brought to an end when it was realized that the species was on the edge of extinction. Unfortunately, this realization came too late.
Appearance and Traits
The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was dog-like in appearance, with a large head and stiff, pointed tail. In fact, its scientific name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, literally means “pouched dog with a wolf’s head”. By adulthood, the average thylacine stood about 2 ft. tall and measured 6 ft. from its nose to the tip of its tail. They could weigh between 60 and 70 pounds. Their fur was soft, short and brown with 13 – 20 dark stripes running perpendicular to the spine and extending from the shoulders to the haunches. It was these stripes which inspired the name “Tasmanian tiger”.
Though usually non-vocal, Tasmanian tigers had a husky bark which was only heard if they felt threatened and a short, double yap reserved for when they were hunting. With an excellent sense of smell and remarkable stamina, the thylacine was a relentless hunter. This made up for its stiffness and inability to move quickly as it was able to wear down its prey to the point of exhaustion before striking. Unfortunately, its gracelessness made it an easy target for human hunters.
Like most Australian native creatures, the Tasmanian tiger was shy and avoided human contact where possible. However, its shyness extended beyond that of its fellow creatures in that it would give in to capture without a struggle. In fact, many were reported to have spontaneously dropped dead on capture as if from shock.
The Tasmanian tiger was carnivorous with a diet consisting of birds, wallabiesand other small animals. With the coming of European settlers, their diet reportedly extended to poultry, rabbits, sheep and even cows. However, much of this could have been exaggerated in order to justify their slaughter. It is likely the thylacine would have scavenged and fed off dead rabbits and livestock. However, given their size and shy natures, it is unlikely they would have ventured into populated areas to attack large animals grazing in large herds.
Thylacines were mammals and gave birth to tiny hairless pups in litters of two to four. The mothers had a rear-facing pouch with four teats concealed inside. The pouch expanded as the brood grew larger and, when a female was standing, could extend almost to the ground. The pups developed fur with the trademark stripes before reaching an age when they were able to leave the pouch. They then spent a transition period living in a lair with their mother hunting for them before venturing out into the bush on their own. Their life expectancy in the wild has been estimated at about five to seven years. Some lived in captivity for up to nine years but, as with other endangered species like the Panda, they refused to breed and the species (as far as we know) died out.
The Tasmanian tiger was happy in the dry eucalypt forests native to Australia, as well as open grasslands and even wetlands. Hunting was best in the open grasslands and wooded areas, while the denser parts of the forest provided shelter. Scientists have gleaned from fossils and Aboriginal rock paintings that the Tasmanian tiger was not always isolated to Tasmania. They once lived throughout mainland Australia and up into New Guinea. However, the most recent remains outside of Tasmania have been dated at around 2,200 years old.
The reduction of their population to a small stronghold in Tasmania has been attributed to competition and predation from the more agile dingo. The thylacine is not alone in retreating to Tasmania. Mainland Australia, in fact, has lost nearly 50% of its native mammals to extinction over the past 200 years. The Bass Strait, which divides Tasmania from the mainland, provides natural protection, while the rich and abundant fauna affords the perfect refuge. This made Tasmania a safe harbour for the thylacine; that is until the arrival of the European settlers in 1803.
The year 1803 marked the commencement of the final death blow to the thylacine species. With the introduction of farming and livestock came conflict between farmers and native animals, particularly carnivores like the thylacine and the dingo. From 1830 onwards bounties were offered for thylacine hides by Van Diemens Land Co. In 1863 naturalist, John Gould, predicted the extinction of the species. However, by 1888 the government had become involved in the bounty hunting with £1 offered per hide. It wasn’t until 1909, when the damage had already been done, that the bounties were lifted. By this time, increasing (human) population density and spreading infrastructure had led to habitat destruction, furthering the decline of the (thylacine) species. Over the ensuing years, Tasmanian tigers were sought after by zoos the world over for their rarity. In 1933, the last wild thylacine was captured and sold to Hobart zoo. In 1936, three things happened: the Tasmanian tiger was added to the list of protected wildlife, the world’s last captive tiger died in Hobart zoo, and the species was declared extinct.
Is the Tasmanian tiger really extinct?
Since the death of the last known Tasmanian tiger in 1936 there has been a regular flow of reported sightings but no conclusive evidence of a remaining member of the species. From the reports, it seems that most sightings are in the north of Tasmania and occur at night. However, there have been a number of reported sightings in mainland Australia. While none of these sightings have been confirmed, they do provide some hope that this shy and unique creature may still exist. Many searches have been conducted for the thylacine but none have found evidence of its ongoing existence.
Unfortunately, even if there were some isolated thylacines remaining, and even if they were congregated together, they would not have the collective genetic diversity to allow for the successful long-term propagation of the species. In such instances, talk of cloning often arises. However, even if the logistical difficulties involved in this process were successfully overcome, the moral and ethical issues would still stand. Perhaps the most important thing to take from the annihilation of this inimitable species is that we should be working towards conservation rather than destruction of habitats. The plight of the Tasmanian tiger should serve as an impetus for us to do all in our power to protect currently threatened species.