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What Was the Thylacine?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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The thylacine was a carnivorous marsupial which endured until modern times in parts of Tasmania. As of the 1980s, the thylacine is presumed to be extinct, because the last recorded specimen was observed in the 1930s. These interesting animals are often cited as an example of convergent evolution, and numerous mounted specimens can be seen on display in museums in both Europe and the Australian region. Many of these museums also have collections of skeletons and other pieces of thylacine specimens.

Like other marsupials, the thylacine would not have generated a placenta to support embryos in the body as they developed. As a result, thylacines were born prematurely and forced to climb into pouches on the mother's body to finish developing. Given that the thylacine was a carnivore, this may have been a bit inconvenient for the mother as her young grew.

You may hear the thylacine called the “Tasmanian Tiger” or “Tasmanian Wolf.” Physically, these animals strongly resembled dogs, with skeletons which are so similar to that of the modern dog that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the difference. They were marked with distinctive black stripes, probably designed to help camouflage the animals at they hunted, just like the stripes of the tiger.

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Existing specimens suggest that the thylacine was yellowish-gray to sandy brown in color. These animals died out in Australia thousands of years ago, probably in response to pressure from animals like dingos, along with human hunters. Aboriginal artwork from the period suggests that the thylacine was treated as a food source by many people. In the more sheltered environment of Tasmania, the thylacine endured into the 20th century, when European settlers killed the animals off out of fear about livestock predation.

The evolution of the thylacine is sometimes called “convergent” because the animals adapted to fill a niche which was filled by dogs and wolves in other parts of the world. This extinct marsupial found a gap to fill and it filled it, becoming a top-level predator which fed on a variety of other marsupials. The last known living thylacine was “Benjamin,” a single individual who died in captivity in the 1930s.

There has been some talk of trying to clone the thylacine, using genetic material preserved in museum specimens. This talk is unlikely to ever develop into a cloning program, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that humans are struggling to save endangered species with living individuals, and such a program would detract from these efforts.

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