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Published by draculavanhelsing
The Thylacine Myth (Attard & Wroe)
The Thylacine Myth (Attard & Wroe)

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Published by: draculavanhelsing on Sep 15, 2013
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hey were one of Australia’s great biologicalmysteries, a biscuit-coloured marsupial with alarge head, bold dark stripes down its back anda reverse-facing pouch. To newly arrived Euro- pean settlers, this elusive New World creature was a Tasmanian oddity that inevitably became a source of confusion, contempt and fear. Now, 75 years after the lastknown individual died in captivity at Hobart Zoo, thethylacine –or Tasmanian tiger –remains one of the least-understood of Australia’s native animals.But modern research is beginning to lift the veil and revealthe tiger’s true nature. In our laboratory, for instance, advancedcomputer modelling of the Tasmanian tiger’s skull suggeststhat it was not well-adapted to tackle large prey. Its skull wasbig but lightly constructed, and more suitable for tackling walla-bies and bandicoots.Isotope-based research is beginning to provide direct evidenceof the Tasmanian tiger’s diet. Such techniques will also helpto gain a more thorough understanding of diet and lifestyle inincreasingly rare Australian species.The fossil history of Tasmanian tigers in Australasia datesback some 23 million years, and has revealed surprising diver-sity. Twelve fossil species from this family are now known.The lineage was wiped out from mainland Australia around3000 years ago, and possibly earlier in New Guinea. Aborig-inal land use patterns, climate change and competition withdingoes have been linked to the Tasmanian tiger’s extinctionon the continent's mainland. A small population of Tasmaniantigers persisted on the remote island of Tasmania, where there were no dingoes and Aboriginal land use differed from themainland. They were by far the largest marsupial carnivore tosurvive up to recent times.Over the past decade, scientists have tried to recover DNAfrom a preserved Tasmanian tiger pup in the hope of one day resurrecting the species. Some people are even convinced thatthey still exist, and extensive expeditions have sought to find
JUNE 2012
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The Thylacine Myth
MARIE ATTARD & STEPHEN WROEA new study of the biomechanics of the Tasmanian tiger’s skull debunks the hysteria behind thecampaign that led to its extinction.
Two Tasmanian tigers in Hobart Zoo prior to 1921.
Photographer unknown.
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 
JUNE 2012
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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.

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