Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine)
What is a Tasmanian Tiger?
The Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine was the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world until it was hunted to extinction by humans. The last captive Tasmanian Tiger died of neglect in a zoo on 7 September 1936. The Tasmanian Tiger had thick, short, coarse yellowish-brown fur with 15 to 20 prominent dark brown stripes across its back . This stripy appearance, similar to that of a tiger, is the reason it was called a Tasmanian tiger. In actual fact its appearance was more similar to a dog.
How the Tasmanian Tiger Got its Name
Early European settlers in Australia referred to this animal as as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. Its scientific name is Thylacinus cynocephalis meaning pouched dog with a wolf's head. From this scientific name is derived its other commonly used name Thylacine (pronounced thigh-la-sin) after the family group Thylacinidae, of which it was the only one to survive to modern time.
How Big is a Tasmanian Tiger?
The Tasmanian tiger had a body about one meter in length with a stiff tail of about .5 of a meter, This gave it a it an overall nose-to-tail length of about 1.5 meters. An adult stood about 60 cm at the shoulders and weighed around 27kgs. Males were slightly larger than females.
Tasmanian Tiger had Unusual Legs
The Tasmanian tiger had strong hind legs which were longer than its front legs. This made the highest point of its pelvis slightly higher than its shoulders. Unlike a wolf, the Tasmanian tiger's legs were relatively shorter than that of an equivalently sized wolf. Its feet however were proportionally larger than that of a wolf. (See how the Tasmanian tiger walked below).
The Tasmanian tiger had a strong stiff tail similar in some ways to that of a kangaroo to which it was distantly related. It held its tail rigidly behind it when it moved. It could not wag its tail.
Tasmanian Tiger's Mouth was Huge
The Tasmanian tiger had an unusually wide gape with 46 teeth. It could open its mouth a full 120 degrees. However it had relatively weak jaws and skull and didn't have a a very powerful bite. This suggests that it ate only small prey under about 5kg in weight. When threatened it would respond by opening its mouth wide and appear to yawn showing off its impressive teeth and gape.
Tasmanian tigers had had large black eyes with elliptical pupils, like cats, which were well suited for night time vision.
Tasmanian Tiger Sound (Vocalisation)
The Tasmanian tiger was a quiet animal. The sounds it made included a low growl when it was irritated, a whine to communicate with others, and coughing barking when hunting or excited.
Tasmanian Tiger was a Marsupial Mammal
The Tasmanian tiger was a marsupial. That means that the female raised its young in a pouch on the outside of its body. Its pouch had its opening facing backwards, similar to that of a wombat. The male Tasmanian tiger also had a pouch, in which it stored its scrotum and testicles!
The Tasmanian tiger's feet and legs generally resembled those of a wolf, and like a wolf it walked on its toes. Unlike a wolf however, its hind legs were longer than its front ones and overall its legs were rather short proportionally to an equivalently sized wolf. This, together with its tail which it held out behind it rigidly, made a Tasmanian tiger's movements quite differently from that of a wolf. It had a stiff awkward walk and a somewhat ungainly trot. It was rarely seen to move fast. It was designed for a leisurely walk or trot and not for a sprint.
What is really unusual, however, is that to could also perform a bi-pedal hop like a kangaroo. To do this the animal would stand upright on its hind legs with its tail acting as a tripod support, in precisely the same way a kangaroo does. It could then hop short distances in this way. It could also stand upright on its hind legs. It has been suggested that the Tasmanian tiger used bi-pedal hops as a quick way of moving away when it was frightened or alarmed.
By the time first European settlers arrived in Australia in 1788, Tasmanian tigers were only found on the island of Tasmania off the southern tip of Australia. Its preferred habitat was open forest and grasslands but with European settlement it withdrew more and more into the dense forests of south-eastern Tasmania. Being nocturnal animals they spent their daytime in caves, rock piles, hollow trees and logs.
Scientific evidence and aboriginal rock paintings indicate that they once were widespread throughout Australia and became extinct on the mainland around 2,000 years ago.
The Tasmanian Tiger Framed
This photograph from 1921 purporting to show a Tasmanian tiger attacking chickens was widely circulated to stir up the public. This was at a time when this animal was rarely seen and already close to extinction.
Actually this photograph is a fake. The tiger is was a stuffed specimen from an exhibit, with a dead chicken placed in its mouth. In the original uncropped photograph, below, you can see dead branches placed in front of fencing and congregated iron sheets to make it appear as though the photograph was taken in the wild.
Tasmanian Tigers were a nocturnal carnivorous marsupials that came out after dark to feed.
The exact nature of their diet is not known. It is believed that they only ate small animals of no more than 5 kgs such as wallabies, bandicoot, possums, other small animals and birds. This is because, even though they had a large mouth, their long jaws and skulls were not strong enough to handle the stresses associated with pulling down large prey such as a kangaroo or wombat. The Tasmanian tiger was a specialised eater which preferred to eat soft body tissue such the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs, along with soft flesh. It rarely scavenged.
Early European settlers introduced many domestic animals such as poultry, sheep and rabbits. In time the Tasmanian tiger may also have preyed on these animals. These settlers used these exaggerated claims as justification for a vicious campaign to eradicate the tiger. However, recent research demonstrates that, while it may have been capable of attacking a lamb, rabbit or poultry, given its weak jaws and skull, it is very unlikely that a Tasmanian tiger would have attacked a sheep. Most of these killings were probably the work of feral dogs, descendants of dogs taken to the island in 1798.
A study by researchers at Brown University examined the elbow joints of cat-like animals such as tigers, lions, pumas, panthers and cats with dog-like animals such as jackals, wolves, foxes, dogs and dingoes for clues of their predator habits. They discovered that the Tasmanian tiger was able to rotate its arms so that the palm faced upwards, like a cat. Dog-like animals, such as dingoes and wolves have arm structures that is more fixed in the palm-down position. With less arm-hand movement dog-like creatures are more suitable to hunt by pursuit and in packs.
In hunting terms the Tasmanian tiger's arm structure made it more suitable for ambushing and grabbing its prey in a surprise attack. Its hunting tactics were more similar to that of a fox than a wolf or dog. Like a fox it was a nocturnal hunter which relied on the cunning of an ambush and then caught its prey like a cat. With its huge gape and mouth it could certainly have crushed the skull, throat or ribcage of the small prey it caught.
The modern thylacine had lived in Australia for over 4 million years before to became extinct. Fossil records indicate that its ancestry goes back at least 30 million years.
Extinction of Mainland Australia
The thylacine existed on the Australian continent until about 2,000 year. It is believed that it became exist because of the introduction of the dingo, a wild dog initially brought from Asia and adopted by many Aboriginal people as pets. The dingo was a pack hunter and far more efficient in catching prey than the thylacine. Over thousands of years the dingo out-competed the thylacine for food, bringing about its extinction on the Australian mainland.
Extinction of the Thylacine on Tasmania
The dingo, never made it across the ocean to Tasmania and thus the thylacine did not have to compete with it for food. Thylacines survived and coexisted with the local Aboriginal population living on the island at the time. When European settlers arrived in Tasmania the Tasmanian tiger was still relatively common there. But in just 150 years it was extinct.
The last wild Tasmanian tiger was shot in on 6 May 1930 by a farmer named Wilf Batty from Mawbanna in northeast Tasmania. Wilf claimed that the Tasmanian tiger, a male, was killing chickens in his hen house. He stated that the dog in the photograph played no part in the deed. In fact Batty remarked that dogs feared the Tasmanian tiger. When Wilf brought the dead thylacine's body home, his dogs fled and didn't return for three days. (The dog does look frightened in the photograph).
The last Tasmanian Tiger, died from exposure at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania on 7 September 1936. It appears that the zoo-keeper forgot to lock the animal in its hut for the night and the unfortunate animal was left out in the cold and froze to death on a cold concert floor. What an ignominious end to such a unique and splendid animal.
A number of factors contributed to the Tasmanian tiger's extinction. Most were caused by European settlers (the tigers had coexisted with the Aboriginals of Tasmania for thousands of years). While the general view is that it was hunted into extinction, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that there were a number of factors leading to its extinction. These factors together, some more than others, conspired to doom the Tasmanian tiger to extinction.
Hunting & the Offer of Bounty
Commercial sheep grazing was introduced in Tasmania in the 1820's and the Tasmanian tiger was unfairly accused of being a vicious sheep killer. Both private and government bounty schemes were introduced to kill the animals. The government scheme which ran from 1888 to 1909 offered £1-per-head bounty for each animal, an enormous amount in those days, resulted in the death of 2,184 Tasmanian tigers. A private scheme operated by the Van Diem's Land Company between 1830 and 1914 records 81 bounties paid. A conservative estimate of 200+ is placed on the number of these animals killed as a result of private bounty schemes. From 1905 there was a dramatic decline in the number of bounties claimed, declining to zero by 1910, suggesting that a dramatic population collapse had occurred.
Introduction of Dogs and Cats
The Tasmanian tiger almost exclusive hunted small prey less that about 5kgs in weight. Intensive competition from introduced carnivorous such as cats and dogs directly affected the availability of these smaller animals and impacts the thylacine's chances of survival. They also introduced disease to which the Tasmanian tiger had no resistance.
As a general rule of thumb, the larger the population and genetic diversity within it, the greater its ability to resist disease. The Tasmanian tiger's relatively small population and lack of generic diversity made it especially vulnerable to introduced diseases.
It appears that a disease often referred to "distemper" or distemper-like is recorded as affecting the Tasmanian tiger and a number of native animals during the early 20th century. The Mercury newspaper of 19 October 1934 notes "Disease, a type of mange, cleared the tiger". These diseases may have been introduced by domestic animals brought in by European settlers.
Protected Too Late
The Tasmanian government finally decided to to list the Tasmanian tiger as a protected species on 10 July 1936 just 57 days before the last animal died and the species became extinct.
Starting in 1803, European settlers cleared large tracts of land for agriculture, forestry and urbanisation. These included native grasslands and grassy woodland, the preferred habitats of the Tasmanian tiger. For example 360,000 ha or 90% of Tasmania's grassy woodlands had been cleared by 1996. These human actions not only lead to habitat loss but also the loss of native animals on which the Tasmanian tiger feed.
Wild Animal Trade to Zoos, Museums and Circuses
Over 200 these unusual animals were captured and sold to zoos and circuses. A further 500 or so were killed as specimens for museums and universities. As their numbers declined there was even more demand for the remaining few.
Between 1878 and 1893, nearly 3500 tanned thylacine pelts were exported to London to be made into waistcoats. While the fur trade didn't directly lead to the demise of the Tasmanian tiger, it did so indirectly as large quantities of animals were killed for their pelts. These included small animals such as possums, wallabies, platypuses on which the Tasmanian tiger fed.