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Thylacine, a species lost forever

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Thylacines were a unique and beautiful species. Unfortunately, the story of how these animals became extinct is a familiar one. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)

On September 7, 1936, the last known thylacine died at Tasmania's Hobart Zoo.

"Benjamin," as he has come to be known, died after three years in captivity, most likely from neglect and exposure to the harsh weather. He was the last surviving member of a unique and beautiful species. Unfortunately, the story of how these animals became extinct is a familiar one.

The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was the last remaining species in an ancient family of carnivorous marsupials once found throughout Australia. During the European colonization of Australia, competition from introduced species and human hunting confined the species to the island of Tasmania. Although often referred to as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf, it was not closely related to either of these animals.

In 1805, the first specimen was killed by Europeans, marking the beginning of the troubled relationship between colonists and the predators. The thylacine was persecuted as a pest, considered a threat to sheep, chickens and other livestock. In 1888 the government promised a bounty of one pound for every dead thylacine.

The extent of the threat thylacines posed to livestock was almost certainly exaggerated. Thylacines were specialized predators of small animals, such as opossums, dwarf kangaroos and rodents and birds. A famous photo purportedly showing a thylacine with the carcass of a pilfered chicken in its jaws has in recent years been exposed as a fake; it was staged by placing a dead chicken in the mouth of a taxidermied thylacine.

The thylacine is one of many species to lose its life to misunderstanding, fear, and perceived threat to human interests. September 7 is remembered in Australia as National Threatened Species Day. In hindsight, the extinction of the thylacine seems senseless and tragic. Let us hope that its cautionary tale will be remembered so that more species will not be lost forever.

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Thylacines were a unique and beautiful species. Unfortunately, the story of how these animals became extinct is a familiar one. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution)
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