Is the thylacine really extinct?

UQ vertebrate palaeoecologist Dr Gilbert Price investigates the extinction of Australia’s Pleistocene megafauna.

A flurry of media reports in the last week have asked: Is the thylacine really extinct?

The stories stem from a James Cook University media release where a couple of their researchers have plans to set-up a camera trap survey in North Queensland, in search of this enigmatic marsupial.

Juvenile male thylacine at Hobert Zoo, taken by B. Sheppard in 1928. Wikimedia Commons.

Juvenile male thylacine at Hobert Zoo, taken by B. Sheppard in 1928. Wikimedia Commons.

Thylacines, otherwise known as ‘Tasmanian tigers’ or ‘Marsupial wolves’, are thought to have suffered extinction on 7 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 thylacine

A male and female thylacines at the Washington D.C. NationalZoo, 1904. Wikimedia Commons.

Most people know that thylacines 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 10 July 1936 that legislation was finally passed that allowed for the protection of the thylacine. At that stage, thylacines 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.

Sadly, one cold night in August 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 thylacine was officially protected, to the time that the last known individual died.

But what if thylacines aren’t actually extinct?

Joseph Wolf, Wikimedia Commons.

Since 1936, there have been numerous unverified reports of thylacine sightings. There has even been news that science can bring thylacines back from the dead.

It was interesting to read the plethora of comments that the public left on these news articles and on social media, varying 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 the key to conservation and environmental management is public awareness and education.

All that aside, the recent media reports did get me thinking. What if thylacines 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 thylacines did once live on the mainland. In fact, prior to around 4000 years ago, thylacines also called New Guinea their home.

An unexpected discovery

My crew and I went on a field trip 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 thylacine.

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.

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

I’ve not yet had an opportunity to fully analyse and date the teeth, but wouldn’t it be amazing if they were from an animal post-dating 1936?

It would certainly challenge everything that we know about thylacines and their supposed time of extinction, not to mention also giving credence to anyone who has claimed to have seen a living thylacine on the mainland.

Better get to the lab…!