The enigmatic thylacine has long been a source of great intrigue, ever since the last captive individual, known as Benjamin, passed away in 1936. The New York Times recently featured an interesting article by Sean B. Carroll, a biologist from the University of Wisconsin, about his quest to rediscover evidence of the thylacine’s existence in the form of an ancient rock painting in Kakadu National Park in Australia, so here at the ARKive office we decided to take a closer look at this unusual creature.
The thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger after the distinct brown stripes that ran from its upper back to its tail, once ranged throughout Tasmania, mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea, although it may have been lost from the latter two locations more than 2,000 years ago. While the reasons for its disappearance from Australia and Papua New Guinea remain unclear, many people speculate that it was due to competition with a newly introduced species of Asian dog, the dingo.
In Tasmania however, without the pressure of competition from dingos, the thylacine was still widespread at the time of European colonisation. Sadly, by the middle of the 20th Century the species had been persecuted to extinction by a long-running eradication campaign, with the last recorded killing of a wild individual in 1930. Thylacines were the first to be blamed for killing sheep and the hunting of them was actively encouraged, with the Tasmanian government paying bounties for thylacine skins between 1888 and 1909.
The extinction of the thylacine was particularly sad as it was such a distinctive and remarkable species. Despite its dog-like appearance, the thylacine was actually a marsupial, a type of mammal that gives birth to relatively undeveloped young which then continue their development inside the mother’s pouch. Standing at roughly the size of a Doberman, the thylacine was the world’s largest marsupial carnivore and fed on a diet including small rodents, birds, and even kangaroos. Perhaps the most surprising feature of the thylacine was its ability to open its jaw incredibly wide; on some accounts up to 180°! Whilst it is highly unlikely that its yawn was quite that wide, the gape was still the widest of any mammal, and is surpassed only by that of the snake.
Shelley Alingas, Wildscreen USA Program Assistant