that was to become despised by, andlater emblematic of the people of theisland.
It is very evident that this species isdestructive, and lives entirely onanimal food; as on dissection hisstomach was found filled with aquantity of kangaroo, weighing 5lbs,the weight of the whole animal 45lbs.From its interior structure it must bea brute peculiarly quick of digestion;the dimensions were, ... length of theeye, which is remarkably large andblack, 1
inches; ... length of thetail, 1 foot 8 inches; length of thefore leg 11 inches; and of the forefoot, 5 inches; the fore foot with 5blunt claws; ... stripes across the back20, on the tail 3; 2 of the stripesextend down each thigh; length of the hind leg from the heel to thethigh, 1 foot; length of hind foot, 6inches; the hind foot with 4 bluntclaws, the soles of the feet withouthair; ... 8 fore teeth in the upper jaw,and 6 in the under; 4 grinders of aside, in the upper and lower jaw; 3single teeth also in each; 4 tusks, orcanine teeth, length of each 1 inch;... the body short hair and smooth,of a greyish colour, the stripesblack; the hair on the neck israther longer than that onthe body; the hair on theears of a light browncolour, on the insiderather long. The formof the animal isthat of a hyaena, atthe same timestronglyreminding theobserver of theappearance of alow wolf dog.
Van Diemen’sLand’s first Surveyor-General, George Harris,officially described the animal in1806 on the basis of two malespecimens that had been caught withtraps baited with kangaroo-meat.Placing it in the same genus as theAmerican opossums, he gave it thescientific name of
(dog-headed opossum).The creature he described wouldcome to be known by an astonishingrange of common names, almost all of them misleading as to its affinities:legunta, dog-faced dasyurus, hyenaopossum, zebra opossum, Tasmaniandingo, pouched wolf, striped wolf,Tasmanian wolf, zebra wolf, andTasmanian tiger. In 1824 anothernaturalist, Coenraad Temminck,recognised the animal as distinct fromthe American marsupials and gave itsmodern name:
(pouched and dog-headed), andhence thylacine, the common namenow most often used.The thylacine superficiallyresembled a German shepherd dog insize and shape. However, while dogsare placental mammals, thylacineswere marsupials related to theTasmanian devil, giving birth to up tofour young at an early stage of development and rearing them in abackward-facing pouch. In a processcalled convergent evolution, thesimilar way of life adopted by theancestors of thylacinesand dogs led to theirdescendantsdeveloping asimilar form.There were other importantdifferences between dogs andthylacines. Thylacines had a ratherstiffer spine and tail, shorter legs, andfeet that were held flatter to theground than dogs of similar size. Thiscombination of features gave it adifferent gait, endowing the animalwith endurance at the expense of speed. Certainly dogs seem to haveeasily caught up with them. Perhapsmisled by the fact that the thylacine’sfront legs are rather shorter than therear, R M Martin noted in his
of 1839, “...in runningit bounds like a kangaroo, though notwith such speed.”The thylacine may have attemptedto catch its prey in an ambush, but if that failed, it would patiently trotafter its prey. Its persistence wasnotable, as a miner named Oscardescribed in the
in 1882:“This native tiger is not swift, and isvery awkward in turning, but itfollows the trail by its never-erringscent, and in the long run is sure of its prey.”When the thylacine caught up withits prey, usually small kangaroos,wallabies, possums, sometimesnative rodents, bandicoots, birds,lizards and even echidnas, itsjaws and teeth were put towork. Its jaw had the largestgape of any land mammal andcould close with great force, asthe hunter Hugh Mackay related:
A bull-terrier once set upon a wolf and bailed it up in a niche in somerocks. There the wolf stood, with itsback to the wall, turning its headfrom side to side, checking the terrieras it tried to butt in from alternateand opposite directions. Finally thedog came in close and the wolf gaveone sharp, fox-like bite, tearinga piece of the dog’s skullclean off and it fellwith its brainprotruding, dead.
Like othercarnivorousmarsupials, its fangswere oval and suited forcrushing, while themolars were somewhatprimitive and shaped forcutting (dogs, by contrast, haveslashing canines and a mixture of slicing and crushing molars).Thylacine teeth are almost unworn,supporting records of the marsupialdelicately picking out the mostnutritious parts of its prey: the heart,lungs, liver, kidneys, and if it wasreally famished, the muscle from theinner thighs, leaving the rest forscavengers like Tasmanian devils.This fussy diet may have led to thewholly erroneous belief that thethylacine fed on blood, first recordedby British scientist Geoffrey Smith in1909. This myth doubtless helped tomake the animal an object of hatredand fear.Though it is difficult to reconstructthe behaviour of an extinct animal,some of the most striking differences
Zebra, or dog-faced dasyurus.
. Harris, James Basire, GeorgesCuvier,
State Library of Tasmania.
Clearly the artist had not seen the living animal.