The Tasmanian Tiger
The Tasmanian tiger, also known as the Tasmanian wolf or thylacine (from its scientific name Thylacinus cynocephalus), was the largest carnivorous marsupial in historical time. The last one in captivity died at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania on September 7, 1936. When they became extinct in the wild is not known, and some even believe they still exist.
The Tasmanian tiger is a marsupial, so despite its name, it is not related to the tiger. The name comes from the fact that it had stripes on its back, towards its rear. Its size and general appearance was more like a dog, which is likely responsible for the Tasmanian wolf name. It's body was about four feet long with a tail about 1.5 to 2 feet long. Its fur was about a half inch long. Adults weighed 45 to 65 pounds. It had the distinction of being able to open its mouth wider than any other mammal. Scientists disagree over whether the Tasmanian Tiger's closest living relative is the Tasmanian devil or the numbat.
The Tasmanian tiger was Australia's largest carnivore. Its prey may have included kangaroos, wallabies and Tasmanian emus. A recent computer modeling study at the University of New South Wales indicates its jaws were weak and could not have hunted prey much larger than ten pounds. It was an ambush hunter, and hunted at dusk, dawn and at night. Analysis of the Tasmanian tiger's brain indicates its sense of smell was not particularly acute. It probably used its senses of sight and sound to hunt. Young joeys were observed during all seasons, so they apparently bred at all times of the year.
Tasmanian Tiger Extinction in the Wild
The Tasmanian tiger line first shows up in the fossil record around 28 million years ago, and modern versions appeared about four million years ago. It once inhabited the island of New Guinea, mainland Australia and the Australian island of Tasmania. The populations in New Guinea and mainland Australia probably became extinct around the time of Christ. Humans migrated to Australia about 50,000 years ago. Later humans brought dingoes with them around 4,000 years ago. It is believed that this competition with humans and dingoes eventually brought about their extinction in mainland Australia. Rising sea levels after the Ice Age separated Tasmania from the rest of Australia around 12,000 years ago, and dingoes never made it to the island.
The Tasmanian tiger survived on its namesake island until Europeans arrived. Although Tasmania was sighted by Abel Tasman in 1642, it wasn't until 1803 that the first European settlement was established at Hobart by the British. It is estimated that about 5,000 Tasmanian Aborigines inhabited the island at that time. Once Europeans arrived, Tasmanian tigers began to decline for a number of reasons:
- They were extensively hunted. Much of the island was used for grazing livestock, especially sheep. The Tasmanian tiger was viewed as a sheep killer, Bounties were paid by a private company as early as 1830, and the Tasmanian government paid a bounty on more than 2,000 animals from 1888 to 1909.
- Habitat was lost when land was used for grazing and crops.
- Settlers brought domesticated dogs, some of which went feral. These competed with Tasmanian tigers for food.
- Some prey species disappeared. One of these was the Tasmanian emu, which went extinct around the middle on the nineteenth century.
- Some captive Tasmanian tigers suffered from a disease similar to distemper. This may have affected the wild population as well.
1930 was the last time a Tasmanian tiger was shot in the wild. The last trapping of a wild animal occurred three years later.
Tasmanian Tigers in Zoos
Tasmanian tigers were exhibited at zoos in Australia, Europe and the United States. The London Zoo became the first major zoo to display one in 1850. They exhibited twenty different specimens between 1850 and 1931, when the last one died. Tasmanian tigers were displayed in four other European zoos:
Two American zoos exhibited Tasmanian tigers. The National Zoo in Washington, D.C. had a total of five animals from 1902 to 1909. The Bronx Zoo displayed four between 1902 and 1919. The director of the Adelaide Zoo in Australia once visited the Bronx Zoo director while the last one was on exhibit and was surprised to see a Tasmanian tiger. When he saw it, he stated:
"I advise you to take excellent care of that specimen, for when it is gone, you will never get another. The species soon will be extinct."
On mainland Australia four different zoos exhibited Tasmanian tigers. Two were in Sydney, one was in Adelaide and one was in Melbourne. The Melbourne Zoo was the only facility to successfully breed Tasmanian tigers in captivity. Four pups were born there in 1899. Between 1901 and 1903, 16 of 17 Tasmanian tigers at the Melbourne Zoo died from a disease similar to distemper.
Two zoos in Tasmania kept Tasmanian tigers. The last known animal (named "Benjamin", although this has been disputed) died in Hobart's Beaumaris Zoo in 1936. It had also been the last animal trapped in the wild three years earlier. The following year the zoo closed due to financial problems.
Seven video clips, all less than a minute long, exist. Five were taken at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, and two are from the London Zoo. All of these can be viewed on the Thylacine Museum website.
Is the Tasmanian Tiger Really Extinct?
There have been numerous unconfirmed sightings of Tasmanian tigers since 1936, and the map below shows the locations of sightings between 1936 and 1980. It seems unlikely that a breeding population could have survived this long without more evidence of their existence. It should also be noted that there are also a lot of sightings in mainland Australia, where it was never seen in historic times. There is a video out on YouTube that is titled Tasmanian Tiger Filmed in Central Tasmania 2012. This video is actually taken from a movie called "The Hunter" and was generated by computer.