The Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) is a large carnivorous marsupial native to Australia, which is thought to have become extinct in the 20th century. It is also known as the Tasmanian Tiger, Tasmanian Wolf, Marsupial Wolf, and the Tassie (or Tazzy) Tiger or simply the Tiger. It was the only member of its genus, Thylacinidae, although a number of related species have been found in the fossil record dating back to the early Miocene.
The Thylacine was extinct on the Australian mainland thousands of years before European settlement. It survived on the island of Tasmania along with a number of other species such as the Tasmanian Devil. Heavy hunting is generally blamed for its extinction. Other contributory factors may have been disease, the introduction of dogs, and human trespass into its habitat. Despite being officially classified as extinct, sightings are still reported.
Like the tigers and wolves of the Northern Hemisphere the Thylacine was a top-level predator.
The modern Thylacine first appeared about 4 million years ago. Since the early 1990s, at least seven fossil species have been uncovered at Riversleigh, part of Lawn Hill National Park in northwest Queensland. The Thylacine showed many similarities to the members of the Canidae (dog) family of the Northern Hemisphere. They had sharp teeth, powerful jaws, raised heels and the same general body form. Since the Thylacine filled the same ecological niche in Australia as the dog family did elsewhere, it developed many of the same features. It is unrelated to any of the Northern Hemisphere predators. Its closest living relative is the Tasmanian Devil.
The Thylacine resembled a large, shorthaired dog with a stiff tail which smoothly extended from the body in a similar fashion to that of a kangaroo. Many European settlers drew direct comparisons with the Hyena, due to its unusual stance and general demeanor. Its yellow-brown coat featured 13 to 21 distinctive dark stripes across its back, rump and the base of its tail. This earned the animal the nickname, “Tiger”. The stripes were more marked in younger specimens. Fading as the animal got older. One of the stripes extended down the outside of the rear thigh. Its body hair was dense and soft, up to o.6 in (15 mm) in length. In adolescent the tip of the tail had a crest. Its rounded, erect ears were about 3.1 in (8 cm) long and covered with short fur. Coloration varied from light fawn to a dark brown. The belly was cream-colored.
The mature Thylacine ranged from 39 to 71 in (100 to 180 cm) long, including a tail of around 19.6 to 25.5 in (50 to 65 cm). The largest measured specimen was 9 ft 6 in (290 cm) from nose to tail. Adults stood about 23.6 in (60 cm) at the shoulder and weighed 44 to 66 lbs (20 to 30 kg).
The female Thylacine had a pouch with four teats, but unlike many other marsupials, the pouch opened to the rear of its body. Males had a scrotal pouch, unique amongst the Australian marsupials.
The Thylacine was able to open its jaws up to 120 degrees. The jaws were muscular and powerful and had 46 teeth.
The early scientific studies suggested it possessed an acute sense of smell which enabled it to track prey, It is likely to have relied on sight and hearing when hunting instead. Some observers described it having a strong and distinctive smell. Others described a faint, clean, animal odor. Some reported no odor at all. The Thylacine was noted as having a stiff and somewhat awkward stride, making it unable to run at high speed. It could also perform a hop, in a similar fashion to a kangaroo. The animal 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 the animal 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 (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 used for communication between family members.
Ecology and behavior
The Thylacine probably preferred the dry eucalyptus forests, wetlands, and grasslands in Australia. Proof of the animal’s existence in mainland Australia came from a carcass that was discovered in a cave in the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia in 1990. Carbon dating revealed it to be around 3,300 years old.
The Thylacine was a nocturnal hunter, spending the daylight hours in small caves or hollow tree trunks in a nest of twigs, bark or fern fronds. It tended to retreat to the hills and forest for shelter during the day and hunted at night. Early observers noted that the animal was typically shy and secretive. It generally avoided contact with humans.
There is evidence for at least some year-round breeding. The main breeding season was in winter and spring. They would produce up to four cubs per litter (typically two or three), carrying the young in a pouch for up to three months and protecting them until at they were a least half adult size. Early pouch young were hairless and blind. They had their eyes open and were fully furred by the time they left the pouch. Thylacines only once bred successfully in captivity, in Melbourne Zoo in 1899. Their life expectancy in the wild is estimated to have been 5 to 7 years, although captive specimens survived up to 9 years.
The Thylacine was exclusively carnivorous. Its stomach was muscular with an ability to distend to allow the animal to eat large amounts of food at one time. Some studies conclude that the animal may have hunted in small family groups, with the main group herding prey in the general direction of an individual waiting in ambush. Trappers reported it as an ambush predator.
Prey included kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, birds and small animals such as potaroos and possums. A favorite prey animal may have been the once common Tasmanian Emu, including dead rabbits and wallabies. They also ate beef, mutton, and horseflesh and occasionally poultry.
Although the Thylacine is formally extinct, many people believe the animal still exists. Sightings are regularly claimed in both Tasmania, other parts of Australia. Also in the Irian Jaya area of Indonesia, near the Papua New Guinea border