The thylacine is one of the most fabled animals in the world. Yet, despite its fame, it is one of the least understood of Tasmania’s native animals. European settlers were puzzled by it, feared it and killed it when they could. After only a century of white settlement the animal had been pushed to the brink of extinction. Full details of the demise of the thylacine can be found at our threatened species site.
The thylacine looked like a large, long dog, with stripes, a heavy stiff tail and a big head. Its scientific name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, means pouched dog with a wolfs head. Fully grown it measured about 180 cm (6 ft) from nose to tail tip, stood about 58 cm (2 ft) high at the shoulder and weighed up to 30 kg. The short, soft fur was brown except for 13 – 20 dark brown-black stripes that extended from the base of the tail to almost the shoulders. The stiff tail became thicker towards the base and appeared to merge with the body.
Thylacines were usually mute, but when anxious or excited made a series of husky, coughing barks. When hunting, they gave a distinctive terrier-like, double yap, repeated every few seconds. Unfortunately there are no recordings.
The thylacine was shy and secretive and always avoided contact with humans. Despite its common name, ‘tiger’ it had a quiet, nervous temperament compared to its little cousin, the Tasmanian devil. Captured animals generally gave up without a struggle, and many died suddenly, apparently from shock. When hunting, the thylacine relied on a good sense of smell, and stamina. It was said to pursue its prey relentlessly, until the prey was exhausted. The thylacine was rarely seen to move fast, but when it did it appeared awkward. It trotted stiffly, and when pursued, broke into a kind of shambling canter.
Breeding is believed to have occurred during winter and spring. A thylacine, like all marsupials, was tiny and hairless when born. It crawled into the mother rear-opening pouch, and attached itself to one of four teats. Four young could be carried at a time, but the usual litter size was probably three. As the pouch-young grew, the pouch expanded, and became so big that it reached almost to the ground. Large pouch-young had fur with stripes. When old enough to leave the pouch, the young stayed in a lair such as a deep rocky cave, well-hidden nest or hollow log, whilst the mother hunted.
Thylacines lived in zoos for up to 9 years, but never bred in captivity. Their life expectancy in the wild was probably 5-7 years.
The thylacine was a meat-eater, in fact, the world’s largest marsupial carnivore since the extinction of Thylacoleo the marsupial ‘lion’. Its diet is believed to have consisted largely of wallabies, but included various small animals and birds. Since European settlement, the thylacine also preyed upon sheep and poultry, although the extent of this was much exaggerated. Occasionally, the thylacine scavenged. In captivity, thylacines were fed on dead rabbits and wallabies, which they devoured entirely, as well as beef and mutton.
Distribution and Habitat
Fossils and Aboriginal rock paintings show that the thylacine once lived throughout Australia and New Guinea. The most recent thylacine remains have been dated as being about 2 200 years old. Predation and competition from the dingo may have contributed to the thylacine’s disappearance from mainland Australia and New Guinea.
Bass Strait protected a relict population of thylacines in Tasmania. When Europeans arrived in 1803, thylacines were widespread in Tasmania. Their preferred habitat was a mosaic of dry eucalypt forest, wetlands and grasslands. They emerged to hunt on grassy plains and open woodlands during the evening, night and early morning.
Why are they extinct?
The arrival of European settlers marked the start of a tragic period of conflict that led to the thylacine’s extinction. The introduction of sheep in 1824 led to conflict between the settlers and thylacines.
1830 Van Diemens Land Co. introduced a thylacine bounties.
1888 Tasmanian Parliament placed a price of £1 on thylacine’s head.
1909 Government bounty scheme terminated. 2184 bounties paid.
1910 Thylacines rare — sought by zoos around the world.
1926 London Zoo bought its last thylacine for £150.
1933 Last thylacine captured, Florentine Valley, sold Hobart Zoo.
1936 World1&Mac218;4s last captive thylacine died in Hobart Zoo, ( 7/9/36).
1936 Tasmanian tiger added to the list of protected Wildlife.
1986 Thylacine declared extinct by international standards.
Do they still exist?
Since 1936, no conclusive evidence of a thylacine has been found. However, the incidence of reported thylacine sightings has continued. Most sightings occur at night, in the north of the State, in or near areas where suitable habitat is still available. Although the species is now considered to be ‘probably extinct’, these sightings provide some hope that the thylacine may still exist. Interestingly, just as many sightings are reported from mainland Australia — perhaps a comment on the poor evidence that sightings alone are.