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PostPosted: Fri 22 May , 2009 11:07 am 

Joined: Thu 03 Mar , 2005 8:22 pm
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Location: Queensland, Australia
I read in article in today’s Australian the world’s largest marsupial carnivore, the Tasmanian Devil, has gone from ‘threatened’ to ‘endangered’. Given the efforts made to preserve the creature, the recent drop in devil populations is extremely worrying. Several scientists are now saying that there is a real threat of extinction, perhaps within forty years in the wild.

We’re all thinking, of course, of the Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, that was still around in decent numbers a century ago yet is now extinct. I wrote this some years ago and had been planning to post it here sometime, and it seems appropriate now:

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When most people hear the word ‘marsupial’, they think of animals like the opossum, or the koala or wombat of Australia. In general, creatures small, cute, furry and harmless. There was a time, however, when great marsupial carnivores roamed Australia and South America – like the powerfully-built marsupial lion, or Thylaceo, or the sabre-toothed Thylacosmilus. Most died out long before historical times, but one did not. I’m referring, of course, to the Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine.

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The Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus being the last suriving species and the one which I’ll be talking about here) was, at its height, the apex predator of Australia and New Guinea. It resembled a lean, light brown, short haired wolf (hence one of its nicknames, the Tasmanian Wolf). It was some three to six feet long from nose to tail and had distinctive light and dark stripes along its back and rump (giving it its other and more common nickname, the Tasmanian Tiger). Despite being uncannily dog-like in appearance and behaviour, it was a marsupial, more closely related to possums than dogs. Still, it was a remarkable example of convergent evolution – the Thylacine skull is almost indistinguishable from that of the grey wolf, and zoology students were sometimes made to tell them apart as an assessment challenge.

In addition to the stripes, it had a few other distinguishing features. It had a strong and muscular tail which protruding straight out from its body. That, combined with its very strong back legs, allowed it stand on its hind legs and even hop bipedally for short distances like a kangaroo. Like all marsupials, females carried their young in a pouch (Thylacinus cynocephalus comes from the Greek thylakos, ‘pouch’, and cynocephalus, ‘dog-headed’). It was also known for its unnerving ability to open its mouth close to eighty degrees, one of the widest gapes of any mammal.

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Thylacines were nocturnal and may have hunted in packs. They were elusive, but their cough-like bark or long whining cry (similar in function to a wolf’s howl) could be heard in remote forests at night. They preyed on wallabies, kangaroos, possums and the like, as well as the (now extinct) Tasmanian Emu. Little is known of their habits today.

The Thylacine was probably extinct on mainland Australia and New Guinea by two thousand years ago, most likely due to competition with indigenous Australians and the dingo which they bought with them. However, dingoes never came to Tasmania, and the indigenous people of the island (known as the Palawi) were few. They survived in the dark Tasmanian forests and wild hills, although they were probably already somewhat rare by the time of European contact.

In 1804, the British founded a settlement in Tasmania that would later become the state capital and largest town of Hobart. From there, they began to spread out over the island. Colonisation proved disastrous for Tasmania, which had long existed in splendid isolation. By 1850, the Tasmanian Emu had been hunted to extinction. The last full-blooded indigenous Tasmanian died in 1876, leading to the extinction of the Palawi language and culture. Introduced animals, like wild dogs, wreaked havoc with the ecosystem. As settlement spread into the remote parts of the country, the Thylacine developed a reputation as a poultry and livestock thief. Bounties were introduced on the animal as early as 1830, and the Tasmanian Government paid a pound per dead Thylacine from 1888 to 1909 (ten shillings for joeys). By the 1920s, the animal was critically endangered.

Several people made efforts to save the Thylacine from extinction, and there were attempts to breed it in captivity (only successful once, at Melbourne zoo in 1899), as well a proposal to create a reserve for the creatures in 1928. Finally, on July 10, 1936, the Thylacine was declared a protected species by the Tasmanian Government, following a 35-year campaign by conservation groups. It was too little too late - there was only one known Thylacine left, kept in Hobart zoo.

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59 days later, on September 7, 1936, it died, and the species died with it. There has not been a single confirmed sighting of a Thylacine since. September 7, therefore, is our national endangered species day.

Of course, all this begs the question – is there any chance that the Thylacine still lives, in Tasmania or even possibly on the Australian mainland or in New Guinea? Tasmania is about the size of the state of Maine or a little larger than Ireland, and is home to some 400,000 people. Large parts of it are still very remote. Even so, many searches have failed to find any conclusive evidence of a Thylacine. In 1938, the Animals and Birds Protection Board scoured the state for Thylacines with the view of establishing a reserve, but failed to find one. Then, in 1945 famed Australian conservationist David Fleay embarked on an expedition of his own with the view of capturing a number of Thylacines and breeding them in captivity (his previous achievements included the first captive breeding of the platypus). He was convinced that he had heard and seen at least one live Thylacine, but he failed to capture any.

There have also been cases of the discovery of alleged Thylacine kills. The Thylacine had a very distinctive method of killing – it typically tore open the rib cage of its prey and attacked the heart and lungs directly, hence the wide gape of its jaws. It ate the internal organs and some soft flesh off the face or leg of its prey and left the rest of the carcass to Tasmanian Devils. A number of sheep were found killed in this method in an area of farmland in not far from Hobart in 1957-1958, which, with a rise in Thylacine sightings in the area, prompted a large search. It found nothing. There have been many other searches, including one in 1968 and one in 1980 using stationary automatic cameras scattered through remote areas, but none have had any more luck. Still, there are two other intruiging pieces of evidence from 1973. One was a dead wallaby in Tasmania, killed in Thylacine fashion, and the other is this curious homemade film taken on mainland Australia. One of the most famous alleged sightings came in 1982, when an employee of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Services claimed to have observed a Thylacine in the early hours of the morning in the north-west part of the state, one of the last places where it was known to have lived. This prompted a massive, year-long search, which found nothing conclusive. In 1986, under International Conservation Union Standards, the Thylacine was declared formally extinct as no specimens had been found for fifty years.

The possibility of its continued survival is of great interests to cryptozoologists, however, and rewards are still sometimes offered by interest groups or individuals for definitive evidence of its existence (one tour operator has promised to pay $1.75 million for the safe capture of a live Thylacine, even though trapping one would be illegal under the legislation belatedly protecting the species). There have been, on and off, attempts to clone it, but none have got very far as yet. I, and many others, like to hope that the Thylacine is still out there in some dark and remote forest, but the chances of it are, sadly, very slim indeed.

The Thylacine went the way of many creatures that had humans move into their habitat in large numbers – the woolly mammoth, the sabre-toothed tiger, the cave lion, or the giant marsupials of Australia. In fact, outside Africa and parts of southern Asia, few large species of terrestrial mammals and birds survived human contact. Still, the fact that it was an apex predator, the last member of its family, combined with the fact that its extinction occurred so recently, makes it especially potent. The only reminder of the Thylacine we have today is its small, stocky and cantankerous cousin, the Tasmanian Devil (the world’s largest surviving marsupial carnivore). Two Thylacines are also featured on the Tasmanian Coat of Arms, which was, in an odd twist of irony, adopted only eight years after the State Government stop paying people to shoot them.

In 1933, naturalist David Fleay took 42 seconds of film of the last Thylacine in its cage at Hobart Zoo. It’s the most detailed footage of the Thylacine available, and you can see it here. It’s a sharp reminder that any one of the great endangered creatures alive today could be reduced to nothing more than video footage – a melancholy relic for future generations.

For more information, have a look at the online Thylacine museum, and, of course, wikipedia. All images from wikimedia commons

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PostPosted: Fri 22 May , 2009 12:00 pm 
The Grey Amaretto as Supermega-awesome Proud Heretic Girl
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Very interesting. :neutral:

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PostPosted: Fri 22 May , 2009 12:38 pm 
Aspiring to heresy
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Location: Canada
Wow - thanks for that illustrated essay! That was fascinating.

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PostPosted: Fri 22 May , 2009 2:55 pm 
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Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 2:34 pm
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Location: Norway
Oh no, the poor Tasmanian Devils with cancer, look at this:

http://www.aftenposten.no/viten/article3086736.ece

:(

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