a contentious issue. To answer this ques-tion requires further knowledge aboutthe mechanical limitations of their skull.For this, our research team from theUniversity of NSW has recently analysedthe mechanical performance of theTasmanian tiger’s skull relative to twoliving marsupial predators –theTasmanian devil and spotted-tailed quoll.In the past, 2D modelling routinely formed the basis of studies to establishrelationships between form and functionin biological structures. With exponen-tial progress in computer hardware andthe development of new software and protocols, we are now able to create morerealistic simulations using 3D models.The process we apply is called ﬁniteelement analysis, which was originally developed for the aerospace industry buthas increasingly been used to predictthe mechanical behaviour of biologicalstructures.The ﬁrst step is to scan a skull fromeach species using CT, which stitchestogether many X-ray images to create a3D digital representation of the skull.The material properties of bone are thenassigned to the model.Reliable results depend on getting accurate predictions of the forces that would have been applied by the animal inlife. For fossil species, dissections fromrelated living species provide a guide to where the jaw-closing muscles attached tothe skull.The model we generate from this process is used to simulate different bitesand generate predictions of how stressand strain would be distributed throughthe skull under different feeding or biting behaviours observed in living carnivorespecies.For example, when a predator bitesdown on prey it obviously uses its jaw muscles, but killing and dismembering prey may also include “thrashing” and“ripping” behaviours in which the pred-ator shakes its head sideways to rip the prey apart. Other predators will twisttheir head or, alternatively, pull back- wards against the prey using their neck. We have simulated these behavioursfor each marsupial carnivore in our study to see how they compare.From the results of the ﬁnite elementanalysis we can assess the magnitude anddistribution of stresses in a skull inresponse to biting down on or resisting struggling prey. The colour images createdof the skull highlight areas in cool-blue where stresses are low and hot-red to white where stresses are relatively high. We were surprised to ﬁnd that theTasmanian tiger’s skull had more stress“hot spot” zones than other large marsu- pial carnivores like the Tasmanian deviland spotted-tailed quoll, which huntanimals larger than themselves. Ourresults suggest that, in contrast, the jawsof the Tasmanian tiger were probably better suited to catching small- tomedium-sized animals such as bandicoots, wallabies and possums.Most accounts from the 19th and early 20th century describe Tasmanian tigersas solitary hunters, although they may have hunted in small groups. This may have consisted of two adults or a mated pair with up to four young. With therapid decrease in the Tasmanian tiger population as a result of hunting by Euro- peans, accounts of group hunting becamerare. The limitation of only catching small prey by solitary Tasmanian tigers may have placed additional pressure on thislarge carnivore.The diet of Tasmanian tigers likely overlapped with that of the Tasmaniandevil and spotted-tailed quoll, leaving it vulnerable to competition. Moreover,the morphology of the Tasmanian tiger’steeth suggests that it was almost entirely
A ﬁnite element model of a thylacine skull (left) and results showing mechanical stressesplaced on the skull when tackling prey (right). Blue colours represent the least-stressedregions and red and white show the most-stressed parts of the skull.
Credit: Marie Attard
Based on an analysis of the Tasmanian tiger’selbow structure theypredicted that thehunting strategy of Tasmanian tigers moreclosely resembled catsthan dogs.