The thylacine (/ˈθaɪləsiːn/ thy-lə-seen, or /ˈθaɪləsaɪn/ thy-lə-syn, also /ˈθaɪləsɨn/; binomial name: Thylacinus cynocephalus, Greek for “dog-headed pouched one”) was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. It is commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger (because of its striped back) or the Tasmanian wolf. Native to continental Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, it is thought to have become extinct in the 20th century. It was the last extant member of its family, Thylacinidae; specimens of other members of the family have been found in the fossil record dating back to the early Miocene.
The thylacine had become extremely rare or extinct on the Australian mainland before British settlement of the continent, but it survived on the island of Tasmania along with several other endemic species, including the Tasmanian devil. Intensive hunting encouraged by bounties is generally blamed for its extinction, but other contributing factors may have been disease, the introduction of dogs, and human encroachment into its habitat.
Surviving evidence suggests that it was a relatively shy, nocturnal creature with the general appearance of a medium-to-large-size dog, except for its stiff tail and abdominal pouch (which was reminiscent of a kangaroo) and a series of dark transverse stripes that radiated from the top of its back (making it look a bit like a tiger).
Like the tigers and wolves of the Northern Hemisphere, from which it obtained two of its common names, the thylacine was an apex predator. As a marsupial, it was not closely related to these placental mammals, but because of convergent evolution it displayed the same general form and adaptations. Its closest living relative is thought to be either the Tasmanian devil or numbat. The thylacine was one of only two marsupials to have a pouch in both sexes (the other being the water opossum). The male thylacine had a pouch that acted as a protective sheath, covering his external reproductive organs while he ran through thick brush. The thylacine has been described as a formidable predator because of its ability to survive and hunt prey in extremely sparsely populated areas.
- The thylacine was important to the culture of the indigenous people of Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea. The first modern thylacines appeared about 4 million years ago. Thylacines were frequently featured in aboriginal rock art, showing that they were a food source and are thought to have been part of ritual practices.
- Thylacines were villainized, then hunted for bounty. When European settlers arrived in Tasmania, they brought with them flocks of sheep. When a great number of sheep were attacked and killed, settlers surmised it was the thylacines’ doing. In 1888, the Tasmanian Parliament put a price of £1 on the Tasmanian tiger’s head. Although the government bounty scheme was terminated in 1909, at least 2,184 bounties were paid in total.
- There is a great thirst to see a living thylacine. Some people believe the thylacine is still out there. There are “sightings” of the Tasmanian tiger to this day. In 2005, Australian magazine The Bulletin offered a AU$1.25 million reward to anyone who can prove the extinct thylacine is well and alive.
- On September 7, 1936, the last thylacine, nicknamed “Benjamin,” died of neglect at the Hobart Zoo. The even bigger tragedy is that we had the technology to film and photograph this magnificent creature.