The last of its kind

One of the saddest parts of studying biology is to see the complete disappearance of a species—especially to witness the death of the very last individual.  Science knows of no way to bring back an extinct species, and so its passing represents an irretrievable loss.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of the last thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus, also known as the “Tasmanian wolf”), a marsupial that once inhabited New Guinea, Australia, and Tasmania.  “Benjamin,” a captive individual on display in the zoo at Hobart, Tasmania, died on September 7, 1936.  Below I’ve put a 42-second video clip of Benjamin in his cage (despite his name, this individual may have been female).

Thylacines were top predators, and a superb example of evolutionary convergence, resembling, in both behavior and appearance, the wild placental dogs to which it’s only distantly related. As a marsupial, it did of course have a pouch in which it sequestered its young.

Note how doglike Benjamin looks.  The stripes on the species’ hindparts also gave it the name “Tasmanian tiger.”  Thylacines died off on the Australian mainland about 2,000 years ago (see the cave painting below), probably from hunting and competititon with introduced dingos, but survived in Tasmania until the 1930s. There its extinction was promoted by its reputation as a killer of chickens and sheep, and there were bounties on its hide.

The website The Thylacine Museum will tell you everything you want to know about this animal.

There are only seven movie clips of living thylacines (from London and Hobart zoos), and you can find them all at this link.  The longest is only 54 seconds, so you can watch them all. Note that  at the beginning of this clip, the beast shows the species’ wide mouth gape: it could open its maw about 120 degrees!

Wikipedia gives a good account of not only the species, but of the death of Benjamin:

The last captive thylacine, later referred to as “Benjamin” (although its sex has never been confirmed) was captured in 1933 by Elias Churchill and sent to the Hobart Zoo where it lived for three years. Frank Darby, who claimed to have been a keeper at Hobart Zoo, suggested “Benjamin” as having been the animal’s pet name in a newspaper article of May 1968. However, no documentation exists to suggest that it ever had a pet name, and Alison Reid (de facto curator at the zoo) and Michael Sharland (publicist for the zoo) denied that Frank Darby had ever worked at the zoo or that the name Benjamin was ever used for the animal. Darby also appears to be the source for the claim that the last thylacine was a male; photographic evidence suggests it was female  This thylacine died on 7 September 1936. It is believed to have died as the result of neglect—locked out of its sheltered sleeping quarters, it was exposed to a rare occurrence of extreme Tasmanian weather: extreme heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night.[This thylacine features in the last known motion picture footage of a living specimen: 62 seconds of black-and-white footage showing it pacing backwards and forwards in its enclosure in a clip taken in 1933 by naturalist David Fleay. National Threatened Species Day has been held annually since 1996 on 7 September in Australia, to commemorate the death of the last officially recorded thylacine.

It’s sad to think that Benjamin didn’t know she was the last of her kind, even if she was lonely.

There is almost an “Elvis cult” around the thylacine, with many believing that it still remain alive.  There have been sporadic reports, and photos, and even one movie of thylacines on mainland Australia; for a summary and pictures go here.   I’m not convinced that they’re genuine (how could they survive at such low density?), but it’s pretty to think that they may still be with us.

A cave painting of a thylacine from the Pilbara in Australia.  See more paintings here.

38 Comments

  1. BilBy
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    I think that would be ‘Pilbara’ in the caption to the last pic. Although we think of ‘Benjamin’ as the last, wild thylacines may have survived in Tasmania until the 1970s.

  2. Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    “unrelated” = “only very distantly related” 🙂

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      Absolutely! I’ve fixed that, too, thanks.

  3. Dominic
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Recall last week the Journal of Zoology article about how weak the Thylacine bite probably was & thus how it was unlikely to have been a sheep killer – one reason why it was wiped out –
    “Skull mechanics and implications for feeding behaviour in a large marsupial carnivore guild: the thylacine, Tasmanian devil and spotted-tailed quoll” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00844.x/abstract

    An article from Biology Letters earlier this year suggests that it was an ambush predator –
    “The predatory behaviour of the thylacine: Tasmanian tiger or marsupial wolf?” – http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/04/29/rsbl.2011.0364.short

  4. Llwddythlw
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    I remember Richard Dawkins commenting on the Thylacine in The Blind Watchmaker. He mentioned that it carried its hind legs in a manner slightly different from a placental dog.

  5. endrekovacs
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    I’m surprised that you did not mention the brand new study on the thylacine. A paper has just appeared in the Journal of Zoology (here’s a good write-up: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/2011/08/31/thylacine-hunted-into-extinction/). It basically states that the thylacine did not have a jaw strong enough to hunt and kill sheep, so they were practically obliterated for no good reason other than a misconception concerning their predatory behaviour. They were the scapegoats for what dingos did.

    • Dominic
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      I put the link in a comment on Friday! But there are so many articles published (and comments on WEIT!) that it is not surprising if it got missed. Thanks for the SciAm link! More people will be able to see that.

    • Marella
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      I was under the impression there were no dingos in Tasmania, only on the mainland. The Tasmanian aborigines were quite isolated and had no contact with the mainland until Europeans arrived.

      • endrekovacs
        Posted September 8, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

        You are right, actually. By the time of European settlement, the thylacine was extremely rare on mainland Australia, driven to extinction by competition with the dingo. Dingoes are absent from Tasmania, but since the two species have a similar build, and dingoes were notorious for killing sheep on the mainland, people assumed that the thylacine was a sheep hunter as well.

  6. robert chamberlain
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I always enjoy your offerings, Jerry. Please note that Tasmania is one of Australia’s states.

  7. Adam
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    So there is absolutely no DNA sample stored to help us perhaps recreate them in the future? Some frozen blood draw from Benjamin? Something?

    • Dominic
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      If it were possible for one to create a clone there would be no genetic variety so there it is hard to see what future it would have -? Also of course the animal is a dynamic part of its ecosystem – we know little about it in the wildother than what we can surmise from the few physical remains. Other arguments against creating such a creature would be that it is better to put the resources in to protect what survives…
      There is a dissected one in UCL’s Grant museum – dissected by T.H.Huxley (originally from Imperial College I think).
      Here is the Grant museum on the Thylacine –
      http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2011/09/07/happy-thylacine-da/

    • palefury
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

      Hi Adam,
      Interesting you should say that, there is a baby thylacine preserved in alcohol, and there is a group in Australia that is working on sequencing the entire genome of the thylacine (obviously only this one individual). The DNA is fragmented so there would be no way to clone an animal from this, but I guess the idea is to somehow reconstruct the entire genome and regenerate the animal. This is ambitious to say the least, so far they have cloned a single genomic enhancer region from this DNA sample and been able to drive beta-galactosidase expression in a mouse, see here. But who knows what we may be able to do one day.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      There are tanned hides, pups in formaldehyde, and the occasional pup in ethanol. Who knows – someone may get enough samples to sequence the genome. However, at the moment there is no known means by which we can produce an extinct animal knowing its genome. Resurrecting the beast is a formidable task – odds are it’s lost for good. Even cloning of extant placental mammals has its share of difficulties despite the far more favorable conditions.

      • Posted September 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        I understand there’s some serious thought of doing nuclear cloning of a wooly mammoth using an elephant ovum and host mother. A sabertooth might get a similar treatment.

        But that’s using closely-related species, probably close enough to permit crossbreeding. I don’t think any of the marsupials are closely related enough to the thylacine for there to be much hope.

        One can, of course, imagine far-distant technology that might, for example, mean growing an artificial pouch and other structures in order to bootstrap the process. There’s no reason I can think of why it should be impossible, but it’s most certainly in the realm of distant science fiction.

        (Science fiction, not science fantasy. We’re talking Star Trek communicators and tricorders, not warp engines and transporters.)

        Cheers,

        b&

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted September 9, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

          The idea of cloning thylacines for eventual release to the wild has been promoted for the last decade or so by Prof Michael Archer (University of New South Wales). Since he started talking about it, DNA has been extracted and sequenced from several thylacine specimens.

          The FIRST TWO COMPLETE mitochondrial sequences are reported by Webb Miller, Daniela I. Drautz, Jan E. Janecka, et al. (2009) The mitochondrial genome sequence of the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) Genome Research 19: 213-220, originally published online January 12, 2009 (doi:10.1101/gr.082628.108)

          It will take a bit more work to get complete nuclear genomes, especially to rebuild functioning chromosomes, but for the price of a very small war I’m confident it can be done. I’ve heard various objections to the possibility and desirability of this outcome, but they are all either factually incorrect (for biologically interesting reasons I won’t go into here) or stupid.

          • Diane G.
            Posted September 11, 2011 at 4:13 am | Permalink

            …but for the price of a very small war I’m confident it can be done.

            😀

    • Marella
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      If Tasmanian Tigers still existed they’d probably all be getting that dreadful virus that’s killing so many Tasmanian devils! Especially since lack of genetic variation is one of the reasons the Devils are dying.

      http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/01/tasmanian-devil-cancer-mystery-solved/

      Or go to Wikipedia.

      • Sigmund
        Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

        It’s highly unlikely that the tasmanian devil tumor would cause problems in any other species, including the tasmanian tiger (if it still existed.) The tumor is able to spread because, due to lack of genetic variation in the devils, it is not recognized as ‘foreign’ by the host animals and therefore their immune system doesn’t clear it. Tasmanian tigers are bound to be very different in terms of proteins expressed etc, compared to the tasmanian devils (because they are a different species!) so there is no reason to suppose the tumor would be able to survive in that environment.

  8. joe
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    ‘moving images’, indeed. the current hysteria among western cattle ranchers regarding wolf predation (wolves in fact accounting for approximately one tenth of one percent of cattle losses) is dismayingly reminiscent of the mindset that likely resulted in the demise of the thylacine.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

      It is here too, even though our reestablished wolf population is much smaller and less dense than in South Europe or North America.

      This summer a transiting wolf went out of its way to avoid a woman and her kid, only to be attacked by her illegally free-running dog. While the dog defended itself (killed the dog) and then got away, the mighty hunters wanted to kill “the kid killer”. Oy vey!

    • Dominic
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      It is the same story in the Alpine provinces of France – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14637701

    • Posted September 7, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      What North American apex predators have that Australian ones didn’t are human advocates. Might not be enough in the long run, but it’s certainly helping in the short run. The Mexican Grey Wolf is making a comeback, in no small part to zoo conservancy programs.

      What we really need is to accept the occasional loss of livestock and the slightly higher market prices that would entail. But that’ll never happen in today’s Walmart world of always-guaranteed lowest prices.

      b&

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      It’s not only large beasts like the wolf. In Asia there are migratory birds on the verge of extinction because rice farmers believe that the bird destroys the crop. The sad fact is that the birds help the crop – they put their long beaks into the stalks of infected plants and extract the grub which is killing the plant (and thus prevent the grub from maturing and propagating). The ignorant farmers see the bird putting their beaks into the stalks and think that the bird must somehow be eating the plant. It doesn’t help that the birds taste good.

  9. Posted September 7, 2011 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks. A much appreciated post.

    I was born and grew up down under, so I knew about Tasmanian wolves. But I was born too late. The videos in your link are the best that I have seen.

  10. Dave
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    A very good post. I read your comment a few days ago that the biology posts don’t get as much of a reaction as the atheism posts, but I want you to know I truly enjoy the science posts here and always learn something from you. Very valuable. Thanks for this.

  11. daveau
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I wonder how many other species have gone extinct in the last 75 years? Wikipedia also states that the number of species is projected to decline by 50% in the next hundred years at the current rate of extinction.

    • Dominic
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Are those the ones already counted or are they based on possible unknown species we will never find out about as we will destroy their habitats before they are known to science? The IUCN is the place to go to check rare species & the famous ‘Red List’ –
      http://www.iucn.org/

      • daveau
        Posted September 7, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        Just the usual Wikipedia ‘take with a grain of salt’ ballpark figures. Don’t know how in-depth they are, where they come from, or how current they are with the recent estimated number of species, etc.

        Thanks for the link. Much more useful.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      Claims of “50%” usually count insects and projections of as-yet unclassified and even undiscovered “new species of insects”. There is no firm basis for believing the claims.

  12. Posted September 7, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I’m not convinced that they’re genuine (how could they survive at such low density?), but it’s pretty to think that they may still be with us.

    Well, then: we should practice us some Sophisticated Biology and claim thylacines do too still exist. They’re just hiding (which after all seems wise on their part), or it’s the Myth of the Thylacine that’s important, or something. Evidence? We don’t need no steenkin’ evidence, you foolish blind rationalist, you.

    • early_cuyler
      Posted September 7, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      Not to worry. Gawd saved some DNA from all the kinds on the Ark in Mt. Ararat. It’s right there in the cabinet next to Noah’s sock drawer. We just have to go get it.

  13. Jim Thomerson
    Posted September 7, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Then there are coyotes, who do not need any help. You know that Texas Governor Rick Perry shot one who threatened his little dog while they were out jogging. My cousin in Mason Co. Texas, has given up or raising sheep because of coyote predation. They are a problem north of Austin, TX, but I’ve lived southwest of Austin for 12 years and haven’t seen or heard them.

  14. Posted September 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Greetings all from Melbourne, Australia.

    Fascinating and very moving footage of a remarkable animal. I visited Tasmania about 6 years ago (it’s about a 1 hour flight from Melbourne), and staff at the rural zoos aren’t totally dismissive of the many Thylacine sightings still reported. It should be noted that the Tasmanian wilderness is among the densest and most impenetrable in the world, so it isn’t impossible that some have survived. But we must remain skeptical without hard evidence.

    For the other notable Tasmanian endemic species, I have managed to witness Tasmanian devils dismembering a carcass. They don’t leave anything behind – you can clearly hear their jaws crunching up the bones. Let’s hope the facial tumour disease doesn’t wipe them out also.

    Cheers,
    Mark

  15. Diane G.
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  16. Kharamatha
    Posted September 8, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Argh! Watch out for the youtube comments.


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