The thylacine, aka the Tasmanian tiger, was brutally and thoroughly wiped out by humans less than a century ago. Today it lives on in the nation’s collective imagination as a possible candidate for resurrection. In this post, I analyze both the physical and moral boundaries to right this ultimate wrong.

Over my time in Australia, I have come to sympathize with the thylacine as I learn more about it and its tragic demise. I have seen thylacines stuffed in museums, a baby thylacine embalmed in alcohol, and have drawn and painted it multiple times, but the incident that sparked the most visceral reaction from me was at the March 20th World Science Festival Brisbane discussion titled Bringing Them Back. This experience, as well as repeatedly seeing thylacines wherever you go in Australia, is why I want to write this piece before writing about the de-extinction debate as a whole.

Being in Australia, the thylacine, or as some locals call it, the ‘Tassie Tiger’, was one of the central focuses of the hour and a half discussion. Before the panel was introduced, the screen played video of the final few thylacines, mulling about in tiny zoo enclosures with audio clips from people who saw them. The presentation was also accompanied by a life-size thylacine puppet (which was a little goofy, for such a grave part of the presentation).

The video clips were what stood out to me because I think this was the first time I had ever really watched an extinct species when it was alive. The thylacine was an incredibly beautiful animal, from its lean frame to its deep, dark eyes to its “tiger” striped back, and it was a depressing sight to see them pacing around their fenced enclosures, a species on the verge of being erased from the world altogether, cooped up in some zoo. The other thing that struck me was how non-threatening and shy they looked, a far cry from the sheep-hunting wolves they were made out to be.

A Brief History of Thylacines

Although the most recent thylacine was confined to only Tasmania, its prehistoric ancestors once roamed across the Australian mainland and up to Papua New Guinea. Thylacines ranged in size from cat-sized to apex predators that weighed almost 130 pounds, larger than today’s wolves. Over ten species of thylacines have been found around Australia, from Victoria in the south to Queensland in the north, and all were predators, with more recent species like Thylacinus potens looking increasingly dog-like and similar to the modern thylacine. The similarities to dogs extended past appearance even down to the teeth, with recent thylacine species having similar molars to modern dogs.

The similarities to dogs is an interesting example of convergent evolution because thylacines are not even remotely related to dogs. Thylacines, similar to almost all Australian mammals, were marsupials, with females having backward facing pouches where they nurtured their premature young. Dogs are placental mammals, the other large group of mammals that has dominated the rest of the globe but (thankfully) did not make it to Australia before it broke off from the supercontinent Gondwana. The similarity in appearance and life style is due to convergent evolution, or two unrelated animals developing similar traits or body types independently of one another to fill similar ecological roles. Another example is the wings of birds and bats being anatomically similar even though they are not related.

The recent Tasmanian thylacine is one of the only large carnivorous marsupial to survive into modern times, with the Tasmanian devil. It was isolated to Tasmania because thylacines all over Australia were outcompeted by actual dogs, when Australia’s iconic wild dog, dingos, were introduced by Asian seafarers a couple thousand years ago. The dingo ate the same food as the thylacine, when it wasn’t eating the thylacines themselves. By that time, however, Tasmania and Australia had separated and the thylacine was hanging onto one last stronghold.

Why are Thylacines Gone?

Thylacines were hunted to extinction by humans. Early settlers of Tasmania believed the animals were a danger to their sheep and other livestock and began a century of intense hunting (between the introduction of the bounty in 1830 to the end of hunting in 1909, over 2,000 thylacines were killed, a mortal wound for the population). Many of the reports of thylacines killing livestock many times their size were probably overblown. Sometimes pictures of them eating livestock were staged with taxidermy thylacines. Whatever their impact on farmer’s sheep actually was (thylacines mostly ate smaller rodents, birds and small marsupials), thylacines were shot and poisoned as pests just the same.

The last thylacine was captured and put in Hobart Zoo, dying three years later in 1936. But reports of the elusive animal still living in the misty forests of Tasmania continues to this day, with an Australian magazine offering over $1 million Australian dollars for the capture of a living thylacine. To the best of my knowledge, one is yet to be captured in the futile chase.

How Could Thylacines Come Back?

At the discussion last week, one of the panelists was Professor Andrew Pask, from the University of Melbourne, who has passionately pursued the de-extinction of the thylacine. He has worked with natural history museums all over the continent that house many preserved thylacine specimens (the thylacine was rapidly collected as it disappeared). One of these specimens was a preserved thylacine pup in Melbourne’s Museum that Pask and his team used to sequence the species’ entire genome in 2017, making it one of the best genetically understood extinct animals.

Knowing all of this genetic information let Pask properly put it in the marsupial family tree (in a sister lineage to the Tasmanian devil) and make some startling discoveries about the genetic health of the thylacine’s population even before it was hunted to extinction. According to what they found in the genome, the population was already in genetic decline due to being isolated on Tasmania. This lower genetic diversity would have made them more susceptible to diseases similar to the outbreak of cancer Tasmanian devils are currently facing. What initially saved them from dingos, geographic isolation, may have eventually been their undoing had humans not intervened to make it more swift.

But with all this genetic information, scientists like Pask are closer to creating new thylacines and perhaps artificially increasing the genetic diversity the species was losing. But this is still a long way away and starts with the need to find a suitable surrogate for possible fertilized thylacine eggs (still years and many breakthroughs away). Unlike woolly mammoths that have a close relative in Asian elephants, thylacines were the last member of their lineage and would need to be carried in another marsupials pouch. But being marsupials could actually prove beneficial. Marsupials spend much less time in the womb than other mammals and it may be easier to stick a marsupial in another marsupial’s pouch.

Preserved thylacine pup at the Australian Museum in Sydney.

Preserved thylacine pup at the Australian Museum in Sydney.

But more information still has to be gathered from thylacine specimens, especially the 13 preserved joey (juveniles from pouch) specimens preserved in museums around the globe. Pask and his colleagues are even beginning to use 3D modeling and CT scanning to study these very valuable and fragile skeletons without destroying the specimens, similar to how scientists study ancient mummies. These models have helped scientists study the thylacine’s growth and development while in the pouch, something that is incredible for an animal that has been extinct for almost a century.

There is still much to learn about thylacines but the amount of specimens, especially juveniles preserved from their mother’s pouches, have given scientists a tremendous amount of genetic and biological information for an extinct species. The next process will be to try to form a fertilized Tasmanian tiger egg.

Should We Bring Thylacines Back?

The de-extinction conversation always ties back into should we bring species from a different time into the modern, rapidly changing world? I’ll dive into the ethics of de-extinction a bit more in a future piece, but I want to focus on specifically the thylacine here.

Andrew Pask, who has devoted his life to resurrecting the thylacine (so he is biased), outlined a few reasons why bringing them back would be beneficial and worthwhile. First, compared to other species like the woolly mammoth, the thylacine has not been gone for very long, dying out a little over 80 years ago. This fact leads to his second big point that because of the relatively short amount of time since they’ve been gone, their environment has not drastically changed since they were eliminated. This means they would have somewhere similar to go back to, unlike the woolly mammoth and the rapidly declining permafrost. And lastly, the thylacine, as top predator of that area, actually served an important ecological niche and reinserting them back on Tasmania would help keep the populations of other marsupials and small mammals in check. Thylacines coming back could possibly create a more balanced ecosystem.

There are a whole lot of arguments about whether thylacines created in a lab would actually be thylacines and would their instincts be gone if they were artificial. The big argument against de-extinction that I believe is that it takes away resources from endangered species facing a similar fate. Think of all the money being spent to sequence the thylacine genome and 3D model specimens when other animals are rapidly going extinct and we are still not sure if de-extinction is even possible.

If the thylacine could come back from the once permanent realm of extinction, it would be incredible and I would be one of the first in line to see a living thylacine. But I believe conservation of current Australian species facing dire situations should outweigh extensive de-extinction efforts. In extinction, the thylacine has become a powerful symbol of what could be lost if we do not change our ways. Bringing it back could take the finality out of extinction and doom hundreds of other species.

Stuffed thylacine at the Melbourne Museum.

Stuffed thylacine at the Melbourne Museum.