Humans have long been the reason for many species of animals going extinct. In prehistoric times this was understandable. How was anyone to know there were only a few of those animals left? But today I’m going to talk about an animal that went extinct right before our eyes, when we had every means of saving them: the Tasmanian Tiger, more accurately known as the thylacine.
Behaviour and Appearance
The thylacine got its nickname because of the stripes on its back, but it like many native Australian animals, was a marsupial. All members of the species had a pouch, although it faced backwards. They also had a long, stiff tail like that of a kangaroo, but thinner.
Its jaws were particularly interesting. It could open up its jaw to 80 degrees, and its mouth contained 46 teeth.
I spoke about convergent evolution in my hyena post, but it also applies here: the thylacine evolved to fill the ecological niche usually belonging to dogs. Australia is short of native canines, so the thylacine developed a skull most similar to the red fox.
It’s hard to know much about thylacines for several reasons. They were nocturnal hunters and tended to live very solitary lives, which made them hard to observe in the wild. Most of our observations come from subjects in captivity, which is not a good indicator of how an animal behaves in the wild. They were exclusive carnivores, and it’s likely that ground-dwelling birds were a favourite meal of theirs. They may have even hunted emus!
The biggest threat to these animals were, unsurprisingly, humans. While dingos were competitors for similar food sources, humans actively hunted thylacines to extinction. It was thought that thylacines posed a threat to livestock, but it was discovered in 2011 that the thylacine had an incredibly brittle jaw. It wouldn’t be strong enough to take down a sheep, which was the main concern.
They went extinct on mainland Australia a long time ago, possibly 2,000 years. This was likely due to human population growth and the introduction of wild dogs by Europeans. Incredibly, thylacines survived in Tasmania until the 1930s. The rarer they became, the more popular they were and active efforts were made to preserve the species. However, animal captivity was not up to the same standards we have now. A disease that affects canines and similar animals spread through zoos and sanctuaries. It took out enough thylacines that zoologists believe their extinction could have been prevented, if not for that.
The last known wild thylacine was shot by a farmer in 1930 after he found the animal in his hen house. Protections for thylacines had existed since 1901, but they weren’t properly enacted until 1936.
The last living thylacine died in captivity. It was known as Benjamin, but there’s still debate over whether it was male or female. Benjamin died of neglect in 1936 after being locked out of its shelter at night during extreme Tasmania cold. Benjamin’s death was not reported right away, because the zoo believed they would find a replacement. The last known living thylacine had died of entirely preventable causes, and no one knew.
Though their extinction was a tragedy, we have actual video footage of the last captive specimen, something that can’t be said of many extinct animals. In 1933 a 45-second clip was filmed of Benjamin pacing in its enclosure. In 2021, this footage was fully colourised for National Threatened Species Day.
This footage is as close as most of us will get to seeing the thylacine in the flesh. It’s a very emotional video for me, because of how close we came to saving this species. We can see how they moved, how big they were. They could still be here as an important part of the ecosystem, but we lost our chance nearly a century ago.
Since Benjamin’s death, there have been a few alleged thylacine sightings, but nothing confirmed. They live on as a kind of urban legend. A lot of people think of extinct animals as being prehistoric, yet we have actual digital footage of this dog-like marsupial. It’s a reminder of how fragile our environment is. It shows just how much of a difference we can make in the world, for better or worse.