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Thylacine

Thylacine

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Published by draculavanhelsing
Aust Heritage (Summer 2006)
Aust Heritage (Summer 2006)

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Published by: draculavanhelsing on Sep 15, 2013
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04/10/2014

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 Australian Heritage
73
The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, has acquired almost mythical status since it was hunted to extinction lastcentury. Once widespread across Tasmania, the Australian continent and New Guinea, the thylacine seemsto have been quite susceptible to changes in its habitat, and its fate was sealed when European settlersdecided that it posed an unacceptable threat to their sheep.
BY MARK KELLETT
T
 ALES OF STRANGE
carnivorous beasts lurking inthe forests of Van Diemen’sLand had been told sincethe visit of the Dutch explorer, AbelTasman, in 1642. His pilot-major,Francoys Jacobz, had led a shore partyon the 2nd of December anddescribed finding “the footing of wildbeasts having claws like a tiger”.However, his report, as with manyothers of strange tracks and half-glimpsed animals that followed it, isso vague that modern readers cannotbe certain what animal is beingdescribed (wombats, for example,have such long claws).On the 21st of April, 1805, the
Sydney Gazette
printed a report of astrange animal found near the short-lived settlement at Yorktown on PortDalrymple in the north of the island.
An animal of a truly singular andnovel description was killed by dogson the 30th of March on a hillimmediately contiguous to thesettlement. From the followingminute description of which, byLieutenant Governor PATERSON, itmust be considered of a speciesperfectly distinct from any of theanimal creation hitherto known, andcertainly the only powerful andterrific of the carnivorous andvoracious tribe yet discovered on anypart of New Holland or its adjacentislands.
Paterson’s detailed description is thefirst indisputable account of an animal
The demise of the thylacine
PICTUREABOVE:
Male and female of the Thylacinus cynocephalus.
(1841), H. C.Richter. From
Mammals of Australia 
by JohnGould (1804–1881). Even at this early date, Gould was pessimistic about thethylacine’s survival.
National Library of Australia,
nla.pic-vn3292764.
Tyger, tyger, burnt out 
 
74
 Australian Heritage
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
3
/
4
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 
Didelphiscynocephala
(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:
Thylacinus cynocephalus
(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
Historyof Austral-Asia
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
Mercury
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.
Didelphiscynocephala 
. Harris, James Basire, GeorgesCuvier,
State Library of Tasmania.
Clearly the artist had not seen the living animal.
 
 Australian Heritage
75
between thylacines and dogs mighthave been behavioural. It is nowknown that many marsupials have abrain two-thirds the size of placentalmammal of similar size and habit, andthylacines were no exception to this.This may have been the result of asimpler social structure, thylacineshunted alone or perhaps as a matedpair or as a mother with joeys, whiledogs form much larger packs. Withless need to communicate, thylacinesdo not seem to have vocalised much,communicating among themselveswith a muted coughing bark andgiving a hissing growl whenantagonised. Ultimately, thethylacines smaller brain and simplerbehaviour may have reduced itscapacity to adapt to the changes thatovertook it.The thylacine was the last survivorof a once successful family. Twelvefossil members of the thylacine familyare described in a recent paper byStephen Wroe, ranging from fox-sizedto wolf-sized predators, most of whichlived between 20 million and 8million years ago in different parts of Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea.Over this period, there seem to havebeen between four or five thylacinespecies living at any given time. Bythe time the first Aboriginal peoplearrived some 60,000 years ago, theirfortunes had waned and only themodern thylacine remained.Thylacines became extinct in NewGuinea about 10,000 years ago and inmainland Australia about 3,000 yearsago. Although the causes of theseextinctions are not known, thedisappearance of the thylacine inAustralia coincided with the arrival of the first dingos
(Canis familiaris)
. Ithas been suggested that the dingo mayhave competed catastrophically withthe mainland thylacine for food andliving space. Though there aresuggestions that small relic thylacinepopulations may have persisted on themainland, only in Tasmania, isolatedfrom the mainland by Bass Straitabout 12,000 years ago, did it surviveto be seen by Europeans withcertainty.This isolation ended abruptly in1803 when the British colonised VanDiemen’s Land in a move to thwartany territorial ambitions of theFrench. A year later Hobart Town(later Hobart) and Patersonia (laterLaunceston) were founded. Twoanimals that came in the company of the settlers were to prove deadly forthe thylacine.In the chaotic conditions of theearly settlements, some domestic dogsescaped and formed feral packs. It ispossible that such wild dogs attackedthylacine; domestic dogs have beendescribed as being either terrified orenraged by them. Dogs also wouldhave competed with thylacines for thekangaroos and wallabies that made upthe bulk of its diet. Ultimately, theworst effect of feral dogs on thethylacine would turn out to be anindirect one.In the early Tasmanian settlements,sheep were primarily a food supply forthe colonists, though small numbers of wool-producing sheep were on theisland as early as 1806. With themainland settlements making fortunesfrom wool, significant numbers of merino sheep began to arrive in VanDiemen’s Land after 1820. There weresome losses among these early flocksand. although it does not seemunreasonable that thylacines mighthave been responsible for some of them, reports of spree-kills of sheepseem more likely to have been thework of dogs. However, a series of mistaken human acts ensured that thethylacine would take the blame.By 1819, the Van Diemen’s Landflocks were more than twice the sizeof those of the New South Walescolonies. Anxious to maintaininvestment in the mainland colony,W C Wentworth wrote about a whollyimaginary “animal of the panthertribe” that “...commits dreadful havocamong the flocks.”. Unfortunately,this was misconstrued as a descriptionof the thylacine, and three years laterthe Surveyor General, GeorgeWilliam Evans, paraphrasedWentworth’s description in theDescription of Van Diemen’s Land.In 1826 the Van Diemen’s LandCompany was granted extensive
 A rare photograph of one of the last thylacines held in captivity. Like ‘Benjamin’, who was possibly the last member of the species, its end wasprobably a lonely one.

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