Research website of Dr Gilbert Price

Is the Tasmanian Tiger really extinct?

There’s been a flurry of media reports out this year that have asked the question: Is the Tasmanian Tiger really extinct? Many of the stories are based off a media release put out by James Cook University where a couple of their researchers have plans to set-up a camera trap survey in north Queensland in search of this enigmatic marsupial.

Tasmanian Tigers, otherwise known as ‘Thylacines’ or ‘Marsupial wolves’, are thought to have suffered extinction on the 7th of September, 1936. That might sound like a very specific date to know when anything went extinct, and it is. But there’s quite a tragic story behind it.

 

The demise of the Tasmanian Tiger

Most people will know that Tasmian Tigers were the top land-dwelling predator in Tasmania until British colonisation. A devastating combination of over-hunting, competition with feral dogs, and exposure to new foreign diseases, did not bode well for their survival.

In 1901, the Tasmanian Government recognised that they had a conservation problem on their hands… but did nothing serious to remedy the situation until it was too late.

It wasn’t until the 10th of July, 1936, that legislation was finally passed that allowed for the protection of the Tasmanian Tiger. At that stage, Tasmanian Tigers hadn’t been reliably recorded in the wild for several years. In fact, the only known living member of the species at the time was Benjamin, a young adult male in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo.

Thylacine hunter

Thylacine hunter

Sadly, on one cold night in September 1936, a keeper forgot to let Benjamin back into his shelter and he was found deceased, exposure being the killer.

59 days.

59 days from the time that the Tasmanian Tiger was officially protected, to the time that the last known individual died.

 

But what if Tasmanian Tigers aren’t actually extinct?

Since 1936, there have been numerous but hitherto unverified reports of Tasmanian Tiger sightings. But is that about to change now that Science has become more involved?

It was interesting to read the plethora of comments that the public have left on the recent news articles and in social media. They vary from “hey, this is cool!” to “if they’re really out there, just let them be!”

As someone who researches, writes, and teaches science, I’m very much in the “this is cool” camp, but with a caveat. We can’t save what we don’t know about. I think that the key to conservation and environmental management is public awareness and education.

All that aside though, the recent media reports did get me thinking. What if Tasmanian Tigers aren’t really extinct? Could there be a viable population living in remote parts of north Queensland?

We know on the basis of the fossil record that Tasmanian Tigers did once live on the mainland. In fact, prior to around 4,000 years ago, Tasanian Tigers also used to call New Guinea their home.

 

An unexpected discovery

My crew and I went on a fieldtrip a couple of years ago to some caves west of Townsville in north Queensland. Squirming around on my stomach in a tight squeeze of one particular cave, I stretched out my hand and picked up a bunch of loose teeth from the surface. It was an amazing moment for me and something that I’ll never forget: they were the teeth of a Tasmanian Tiger.

Fossil Tasmanian Tiger teeth from a cave in North Queensland

Fossil Tasmanian Tiger teeth from a cave in North Queensland

They were discoloured, so not quite the pearly whites that you’d expect with fresh teeth, but they were remarkably well-preserved. Both the crowns and roots were completely undamaged. That’s very unusual for any type of fossil, so you can imagine my surprise to find them like that.

Does this astonishing preservation and fact that they were found simply lying on the surface mean that they are actually really young?

I’ve not yet had an opportunity to fully analyse and date the teeth yet, but wouldn’t it be amazing if they were from an animal post-dating 1936. It would certainly challenge everything that we know about Tasmanian Tiger and their supposed time of extinction, not to mention also giving credence to anyone who has claimed to have seen a living Tasmanian Tiger on the mainland.

Better get to the lab…!

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Gilbert Price

Vertebrate palaeontologist at The University of Queensland
Gilbert has diverse research interests that include the study of Ice Age megafauna extinctions, climate and human impacts on coral reefs, and development of new fossil dating methods.

Comments

  1. A wonderful discovery! I had know I idea tasmanian tigers lived on the mainlaind.

  2. Very interesting. More data on the destruction people have had on this continent.

  3. Very cool. I think Tasmanian Tigers are still around. Maybe not on the mainland, but possibly in Tasmania. Very rugged parts that are poorly explored… good place for a Tassie tiger or two to hang out.