September 7, 2011 | 1
September 7, 1936 the last thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) died at the Hobart Zoo (Tasmania). Modern legends attributed him the name Benjamin and a gruesome death – neglected and forgotten he (or more probably she) died from depression and the harsh weather. Fifty years later the entire species was declared extinct and today September 7, is remembered in Australia as “National Threatened Species Day“.
The first notes of a thylacine were written during the Bruni d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition to Oceania in 1792, describing “a quadruped, the size of a large dog…of a white colour marked with black, [which] had the appearance of a wild beast“. The first specimen was killed by Europeans in March 1805 and immediately the difficult relationship between colonists and the predator became evident. In a letter by the Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson to the “Sydney Gazette“ he describes the animal as follows:
“It is very evident this species is destructive, and lives entirely on animal food; on dissection his stomach was filled with a quantity of kangaroo…from its interior structure it must be a brute particularly quick of digestion…The form of the animal is that of a hyaena, at the same time strongly reminding the observer of the appearance of a low wolf dog. The lips do not appear to conceal the tusks.“
Considered a threat to sheep, the major resource of the economy of the colony, the Tasmanian tiger was fiercely hunted. Only some naturalist expressed cautionary regret on this practice, like the minister John West in 1850:
“The thylacine kill sheep, but confines its attack to one at a time; and is therefore by no means as destructive to a flock as the domestic dog become wild, or as the Dingo of Australia, which both commit havoc in a single night. High rewards have always, however, been given by sheep-owners for their destruction; and, as any available spot of land is now occupied, it is probable that in a few years this animal, so highly interesting to the zoologist, will become extinct; it is now extremely rare, even in the wildest and least frequented parts of the island.”
Fig.1. A contemporary photography published by Harry Burrell in “The Australian Museum Magazin” (1921) showing the thylacine if not as sheep- at least as chicken-predator. Today the image is exposed as staged scene (image in public domain).
Naturalists, even palaeontologists, were fascinated about this endemic animal from Tasmania. Victorian geologist Gideon A. Mantell uses the “Dog-headed Opossum” to praise the achievements (and limitations) of comparative anatomy to reconstruct fossil animals
“Thus the fossil pelvis of the Thylacinus, had that species been long, as it is soon likely to be, extinct, would not have afforded the certain evidence of its marsupial character of which Cuvier triumphantly appealed in demonstration of the Didelphys of the gypsum quarries of Montmartre;…” (The Medals of Creation; 1854: 804)
In 1888 the government promised a bounty of 1£ for every killed tiger. At the beginning of the XX century the number of killed specimens and paid bounties diminished significantly, suggesting that the native population was collapsing. The last tiger in the wild was shot in May 1930.
The thylacine was probably almost a rare species in the early years of the European settlement and this confined population was ulterior weakened by the persecution as “sheep-killer”. It is also possible that during this “bottleneck phase” a final epidemic decimated the remaining animals.
However a new published research discharges the thylacine from the accusation of ferocious “sheep serial killer” and suggests that the thylacine was a specialized predator of smaller animals, like opossums and dwarf kangaroos. As a specialized predator the destruction of habitat was sufficient to push the thylacine to the brink of extinction by increased competition with others predators, like the (today also endangered) Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii).
GUILER, E.R. (1985): Thylacine: The Tragedy of the Tasmanian Tiger, Melbourne. Oxford University Press: 23-29
OLSEN, P. (2010): Upside Down World: Early European Impressions of Australia’s Curious Animals. National Library of Australia: 240
OWEN, D. (2003): Thylacine – The tragic tale of the Tasmanian Tiger. Allen & Unwin: 228