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Once Thought Extinct, the Tasmanian Tiger May Still Be Prowling the Planet

Tasmanian tiger
A pair of thylacines (Thylacinus cynocephalus) in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in 1906. Wikimedia Commons

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You've no doubt heard about the Tasmanian devil or, better yet, even seen an animated version of the whirling dervish in a Looney Tunes cartoon. But what about the Tasmanian tiger? Actually not even a tiger at all — instead a marsupial scientifically known as the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) — this creature is thought to have gone extinct almost 100 years ago. But did it really? Well, while many experts believe that the last-known thylacine died at Australia's Hobart Zoo in 1936, yet others ardently claim that the animal still exists because they have spotted one or more in the wild.

"The international, Australian and state definition of an extinct species is that there has been no reliable evidence of the species for 50 years," states Kathryn Medlock, honorary curator of vertebrate zoology at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery, in an email interview. "By this definition, they are officially an extinct species. Although designated as officially extinct, it is difficult to prove that something is not there as opposed to proving it is. There are many cases of species being 'rediscovered' after many years of supposed extinction."

According to Rick Schwartz, an animal ambassador for California's San Diego Zoo, Tasmanian tigers became an extinct species in the 1930s. "Since then," he wrote in an email, "there have been a few claims that they have been seen for brief moments in the wild. However, no substantial evidence has proven they exist at this time."

Neil Waters of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia disagrees. "Do I think the animal is extinct? No, because I have seen two and been coughed/barked at by one in South Australia in 2018," he said via an email interview. "There have been more than 7,000 documented sightings of thylacines (or animals that appear to be thylacines), with the majority of those sightings on mainland Australia.

"According to the scientific formula applied to mammals, though, it is extinct and has been since 1936," Waters adds. "For 50 years, the animal was considered rare and endangered. This fact inconveniently keeps the animal as a recent extinction, rather than an ancient one we should lose hope over and forget about."

On May 19, 2020, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) released a short newsreel clip, digitized in 4K, of the last surviving thylacine as he stalked his enclosure in 1935:

What Exactly Is a Tasmanian Tiger?

"The name 'tiger' most likely was given to the animal by the European settlers due to the light stripes that went from the spine down each side on the hind end of the animal," says Schwartz. "Most people agree that the Tasmanian tiger looked like a medium-sized, short-haired dog with subtle stripes on its hindquarters and the base of its tail. The tail was thick and muscular at the base, more like a kangaroo's tail than a dog's tail. The colorations were described as light-brown and yellow-brown, with darker brown stripes."

Their weight? About 45 to 70 pounds (20 to 32 kilograms), with a body length of 40 to 50 inches (102 to 127 centimeters) and the tail adding another 20 to 24 inches (51 to 61 centimeters). Most stood about 2 feet tall (0.6 meters) at the shoulder.

"In our modern times, we usually think of marsupials as koalas and kangaroos," explains Schwartz. "However, the Tasmanian tiger had a number of unique characteristics, being a dog-like, medium sized carnivore that's also a marsupial. Its size and features were more similar to that of a small wolf or large fox. Combine that with the striped pattern on the hind end and a thick muscular tail, similar to a kangaroo, and you've got a pretty unique animal."

Adds Waters: "When you have a close look at the prints we find, you will see time and time again the broad splay of the toes and the claw drag impressions from the massive fixed claws on the animal's forefeet. The reason they are splayed wide, and not like a dog, is because thylacines don't have webbing between their toes. Their front feet also still act similar to hands, as they can both hop or run on all fours. As a result, many of the prints appear that the front feet are literally grabbing the ground as they dig in on curves or at high speed when pursuing prey."

What Led People to Think That They're Extinct?

When Europeans first settled, the Tasmanian tiger was rarely seen. The animal started to become increasingly blamed for attacks on sheep, however, so private companies and the Tasmanian government attempted to curb the population by establishing bounties in exchange for dead thylacines. Adding to their eventual extinction: Australia's colonization brought about the erosion of the thylacine's habitat.

By the 1920s, sightings of the Tasmanian tiger in the wild became extremely rare, and in 1930, a farmer from Mawbanna named Wilfred (Wilf) Batty shot and killed the last-known wild Tasmanian tiger. The final thylacine was captured in the Florentine Valley in 1933 and transferred to the Hobart Zoo. On Sept. 7, 1936, the animal — known as Benjamin — died in captivity. Black-and-white footage recorded in 1933 would become historically significant as images of the final thylacine.

The Tasmanian Animals and Birds' Protection Board (later to become the National Park Service) launched a series of searches in 1937 to determine where thylacines still might be found. "Unfortunately, a living animal was not discovered," says Medlock. "The final search in this series was into the Jane River area in Western Tasmania. On this search, some thylacine footprints were discovered in a creek bed. The original plaster casts of these prints are lodged in the Tasmanian Museum."

Most Recent Credible Sightings of the Tasmanian Tiger

"The Tasmanian Museum doesn't receive sighting reports, and we don't have the expertise to assess them," says Medlock. "This is done by the Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment. They continue to record reported sightings, and take them seriously. Often, however, sightings, films and photographs are released to the media through the people who are reporting them, rather than a government body. Over the years, there have been several instances of photographs and films purported to be thylacines in the wild, but none have been verified as genuine evidence of an animal."

Waters, however, contends that there have been dozens of credible sightings of thylacines. "Actually hundreds of them ... too many to name," he says. "One, in particular, was a busload of tourists in Western Australia back in the 1980s who all saw the animal at close range in broad daylight whilst on a wild flower tour.

"The fact that we find headless kangaroos all over Australia is a key piece of physical evidence that these animals still persist," adds Waters. "But nobody wants to know about it, because it's always blamed on either hunters or Satanists by ill-informed people who don't understand how these animals feed."

That's why Waters has been working tirelessly to raise public awareness of this animal's continued existence for the past five years, meeting dozens of witnesses and collecting thousands of statements regarding sightings of this animal in both Tasmania and across mainland Australia. His work appears in the 2017 documentary "Living...The Thylacine Dream," which follows Waters' travels throughout mainland Australia to collect evidence of predation, as well as stories of sightings from witnesses who are adamant they have seen the thylacine both recently and historically.

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