Almost exactly 79 years ago, on September 7, 1936, the world’s last captive thylacine died at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. (The last record of a thylacine being killed in the wild happened six years prior.) Today, we know more about this poster species for extinction than we do about many living animals.
1. THEIR RESEMBLANCE TO DOGS WAS TOTALLY SUPERFICIAL.
The thylacine got the nickname the “Tasmanian tiger” or the “Tasmanian wolf” because it looked and acted like a strange combination of the two animals. As marsupials, however, they were only distantly related to felines and canines. These very different carnivores independently evolved similar features and even (more or less) assumed the same environmental niche. This phenomenon—when near-identical traits appear in two unrelated organisms—is known as "convergent evolution" and takes place all the time.
2. THEY WERE MAINLY NOCTURNAL.
Thylacines were known to sunbathe at midday, but they predominantly hunted at night. Their prey included kangaroos, wallabies, small mammals, and birds. According to some eyewitness accounts, hungry thylacines would trot after their targets over a large distance, slowly tiring them out. Then, without warning, they’d break into a full run and grab their victims. However, modern research on thylacine skeletons has indicated that they were built as ambush predators rather than pursuit predators.
3. THEIR JAWS COULD OPEN TO A 120-DEGREE ANGLE.
After this thylacine was filmed in 1933, it wheeled around and bit the cameraman—zoologist David Fleay—right on the buttocks. Fortunately, the scientist walked away uninjured, if a little embarrassed. By taking one for the team, Fleay was able to capture the marsupial's threatening gesture, the yawn. When faced with danger, thylacines would respond by widening their maws and showing off an impressive gape.
4. LIKE KANGAROOS, THYLACINES WOULD SOMETIMES HOP AROUND ON TWO LEGS.
Walking and sprinting were a thylacine’s real forte, but some footage does show them rearing up on their hind legs for brief periods of time. A few naturalists also reported seeing them engage in some short-distance bouncing.
5. DINGOES ARE OFTEN BLAMED FOR THEIR DOWNFALL.
For more than 40,000 years, thylacines roamed both Tasmania and mainland Australia. But around 3000 or 4000 years ago, early settlers introduced dingoes to the land down under. Descended from Asian wolves, the newcomers were better equipped for lengthy runs than their marsupial counterparts. Because of this, experts have traditionally blamed them for out-competing mainland thylacines—eventually killing them off altogether. It’s also argued that thylacines only managed to hang on in Tasmania because these canines never reached the island.
But do dingoes really deserve all the blame? Perhaps not. Recent research suggests that climate change, as well as the people who first introduced dingoes, played an even bigger role in decimating Australia’s thylacine population. Also, because dingoes chase their food across open terrain and the “Tasmanian tigers” were ambush hunters, these two species might not have gone after the same types of prey. Long term coexistence could have been a reality—without human interference, that is. Still …
6. IT'S POSSIBLE THAT THYLACINES WOULD HAVE DIED OUT ANYWAY.
Genetic diversity is the lifeblood of evolution. When an entire population shares too many traits, the shallow gene pool makes bouncing back from fatal diseases or other catastrophes very difficult. In 2012, a team of biologists compared preserved samples from 14 Tasmanian thylacines. The researchers found that in a section of DNA normally very different between individuals, the specimens were 99.5% identical. (One expert noted that “the Tasmanian tiger only averages one DNA difference between individuals, whereas the dog, for example has about five to six differences between individuals.") If left untouched by man, it’s likely that the species still wouldn’t have survived much longer than it did.
7. THEY'RE DEPICTED IN ANCIENT ROCK ART.
At some point during the past 40,000 years, an Aboriginal artist left this painting on a rock face in northern Australia. The site also includes illustrations of fish, kangaroos, and human figures
8. TASMANIA'S GOVERNMENT DECIDED TO START PROTECTING THEM 59 DAYS BEFORE THE LAST ONE PERISHED.
His name was Benjamin and, sadly, he (or possibly “she”) didn’t die of natural causes. After every other thylacine known to man had passed away, Benjamin lingered on inside the Beaumaris Zoo. Then, one cold September night, the creature was accidentally locked out of its shelter. Soon enough, he succumbed to the frigid temperatures and this once-proud species went out with a whisper.
Just a couple months earlier, on July 10, 1936, Tasmania had officially listed the thylacine as a protected species. Had this move come a century earlier, it might have done some good. Benjamin was killed by an act of human carelessness. His ancestors, on the other hand, were deliberately hunted down.
Believing that thylacines killed sheep, the private Van Diemens Land Company fought back, offering a bounty of 5 shillings for a male’s carcass and 7 for a female’s. The Tasmanian government later followed suit by directly paying its own residents to slaughter the animals. Before this state-sponsored hunt was disbanded in 1909, taxpayer money had financed the deaths of 2,184 thylacines.
9. TWO ARE PROMINENTLY DISPLAYED ON THE TASMANIAN COAT OF ARMS.
Approved in 1917, the design also includes a shield that pays homage to the country’s traditional commodities: hops, apples, wheat, and sheep. Look closely and you’ll notice that the red lion’s holding a shovel and pick as a tribute to Tasmania’s miners. Below it all is the Latin motto “ubertas et fidelitas,” or “fidelity and faithfulness.”
10. TED TURNER ONCE OFFERED A $100,000 REWARD TO ANYONE WHO COULD PROVE THEY'RE STILL AT LARGE.
Thylacines are often mentioned in the same breath as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Since Benjamin’s abrupt demise, more than 3000 unconfirmed “sightings” of live specimens have been reported. In 1983, CNN’s founding father raised the stakes by promising $100,000 in exchange for proof of the thylacine’s survival (he later revoked the offer).