Thylacines: Getting Inside the Head of an Extinct Predator

By Gemma Tarlach | January 18, 2017 1:00 pm
Benjamin, the last living thylacine (as far as we know), photographed in 1933, three years before his death, at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. Credit: Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin, the last living thylacine (as far as we know), photographed in 1933 at Tasmania’s Hobart Zoo, three years before his death. Credit: Photographer unknown, Wikimedia Commons.

While I have mixed feelings about de-extinction, particularly for animals that have been out of the picture for thousands of years (I’m looking at you, woolly mammoth), I’d argue the species with the strongest case for giving it a shot would be Thylacinus cynocephalus, better known as the Tasmanian Tiger or thylacine.

This fascinating marsupial, once found in much of Australia (particularly the island of Tasmania, as its name suggests), went extinct in the 20th century — though reports of alleged sightings continue to accumulate.

Whether any of those sightings are legit, or the thylacine earns a second chance through de-extinction, new research is giving us a novel look into the workings of the thylacine brain and how it might have lived in the wild.

Why are thylacines so cool? So many reasons. So very many…hang on. I get a little emotional about thylacines. Ahem. [Takes a sip of water, dabs at eyes with tissue.] Despite looking like a dog wearing a low-quality tiger costume for Halloween, thylacines aren’t related to either cats or dogs. They’re the last members of a carnivore family that goes back more than 20 million years. Both females and males had a pouch, though it was less developed in males.

Thylacines were able to open their jaws nearly 90 degrees, a trait shared with their nearest living relative (admittedly not that close on the family tree), the Tasmanian devil.

Neville, a member of Sarcophilus harrisii, showing off the impressive range of motion seen in the jaws of both Tasmanian devils and thylacines. Credit: G. Tarlach.

Neville, a member of Sarcophilus harrisii, showing off the impressive range of motion seen in the jaws of both Tasmanian devils and thylacines. Image taken at Trowunna Wildlife Park, Mole Creek, Tasmania, 2011. Credit: G. Tarlach.

To The Memory of Thylacines

Thylacines once roamed much of Australia and even as far north as New Guinea. But dingos, in competition with them, muscled them into ever-smaller territory (and also, on occasion, probably found them to be delicious). By the time Europeans were poking around Australasia, the mercurial marsupials were restricted to Tasmania.

Before you gruffly mutter that thylacines had their chance and Nature voted them off the island, so to speak, consider that habitat destruction due to farming, coupled with a ruthlessly successful bounty program begun in 1830 and in place for nearly a century, led to the thylacines’ extinction from their last stand, on Tasmania.

Wilfred Batty of Mawbanna, Tasmania, with the last Tasmanian Tiger known to have been shot in the wild. He shot the tiger in May, 1930 after it was discovered in his hen house. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In May 1930, the last Tasmanian Tiger shot in the wild was done in by Wilfred Batty of Mawbanna, Tasmania, reportedly after finding it in his hen house. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By the time humans started thinking hey, maybe we should be learning about these interesting and unique animals, the last Tassie tigers, living in captivity in a handful of zoos, were shuffling off this mortal coil.

So incredibly, even though the species went extinct less than a century ago, no one ever studied thylacines in the wild. All we have are a handful of anecdotal observations by hunters, trappers and farmers. Not the most unbiased bunch to provide information about a predator’s lifestyle.

A New Hope

Now, however, a new era in thylacine research arrives with the first reconstruction of its cortical maps. Published today in PLOS One (which is open access, folks, so enjoy), researchers got their hands on two of the four known thylacine brains preserved for posterity, as well as two Tasmanian devil brains, and used MRI-based diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to map out their neural connections.

Yeah, that sounds like some fancy (and also expensive) research, but what did it tell us? Well, for starters, it showed us that DTI is even possible on a century-old specimen (it’s typically used in brains less than 10 years old) and that identifiable pathways, or tracts, are still present after sitting in a jar on a museum shelf for that long.

But today’s study also revealed that the thylacine cortex had a larger caudate zone than that of the Tassie devils, which means the tigers likely devoted more brain power to action planning and decision making than their smaller distant kin.

A pair of thylacines before our species offed them all (nice going, humans). Credit: Smithsonian Institutional Archives, 1904.

A pair of thylacines action planning and decision making before our species offed them all (nice going, humans). Credit: Smithsonian Institutional Archives, 1904.

The difference in cortex between the species makes sense: devils are scavengers, while thylacines were hunters. Today’s findings also augment previous studies that looked at other specialized aspects of the thylacine anatomy, including tooth shape and elbow joint, which point to it being more of an ambush predator than one of pursuit.

The new research brings us closer to understanding what the thylacine might have been like in the wild — and what it might be like again, should the de-extinctionists have their way.

Of course, there is a sizable camp of thylacine enthusiasts who believe that the animals never really went the way of the passenger pigeon and dodo, and instead live on in areas of mainland Australia, action planning and decision making blissfully unmolested by humans.

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  • Andy Anderson

    I think the idea of de-extinction is such a fascinating one especially for a marsupial like the thylacines. It had been considered extinct for nearly 80 years, but the Tasmanian tiger has been declared alive and kicking by an intrepid group of British naturalists, but there is still no proof that they are still lingering around seem like they have the same allusiveness as Bigfoot. I think they are an interesting creature, especially how they look. I consider them to be more like the wild dogs of Africa crossed with a kangaroo especially with them having pouches. Though I do not think they are still around, the idea of them to be lurking around makes you questions if they are out there still.

  • Mike Richardson

    Since there’s little doubt that humanity played a significant role in the thylacines’ extinction, we should seriously consider this species at the top of any list of prospective candidates for de-extinction. It’s amazing how evolution resulted in such a similar canine form of predator from such divergent roots. Truly an amazing creature, and one I would love to see returned to life, if scientifically possible.

  • StarDestroyerXerO

    It would be interesting if they could recover a live specimen, but I doubt that any are around. More than likely, it is fantasy. De-extinction talk needs to be weighted against, or with reality. If these creatures were already lingering, before man delivered the final blow, will have it even harder to find a niche. Then again, there has been some successes with bringing some species back from the brink.

  • Lee Hansen

    Just sent to the San Diego Zoo:

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    I have always been fascinated with the Tasmanian Tiger and the possibility it is NOT extinct.

    I
    have consulted with my computer savvy relatives and we think search may
    be possible in this way and I am seeking your advice on how to get
    started.

    Step #1 – develop an image search program to look for “stripped dog viewed from above”.

    Step #2 – obtain satellite and surveillance images of Tasmania. Eliminate those of urban areas or military areas.

    Step #3 – Look for volunteers to use their home computers to run the search during the times they are not using their computers.

    Of course there would be many false hits that would have to be looked at but with so many people involved it could be done.

    Where do I go from here and would the Zoo want to be involved?

    Thank you,
    Lee Hansen

    • kgelner

      Sorry but there are usually no images taken of truly wild areas with enough resolution to examine markings on an animal the size of a horse… Not to mention that very likely during they day these animals would be resting under cover and only at night in the open where they could be seen. I would not be surprised to find that some still exist for that reason.

    • GemmaTarlach

      Hi Lee, having been all over Tasmania, much of it hiking, I can assure you great portions of the island are still densely forested. Researchers studying the Tasmanian Devil have a hard enough time finding those animals in the wild. I believe thylacines were likely crepuscular, as well, so even if their numbers were plentiful, the chances of spotting them from overhead are extremely unlikely. Like you and Fox Mulder, I want to believe, but the odds are against the thylacine. Thanks for your interest!

  • TopMonkey

    “Before you gruffly mutter that thylacines had their chance and Nature voted them off the island, so to speak, consider that habitat destruction due to farming, coupled with a ruthlessly successful bounty program begun in 1830 and in place for nearly a century, led to the thylacines’ extinction from their last stand, on Tasmania.”

    Is the author saying that humans didn’t evolve? Saying that we aren’t part of survival of the fittest just because we farm? They some how want to have their cake and eat it too on this. We seem to be above the animals when it fits their agenda and just another animal when it fits.

    • GemmaTarlach

      Come now, TopMonkey. In no way did I write or imply that humans did not evolve. Since we evolved, however, we as a species have had an outsized impact on many other species, and on the planet in general. Our species excels at habitat destruction (a dubious distinction) not only in terms of volume but also speed. Few non-microbial species have time to adapt in order to survive our rapid expansion, which is unprecedented. I sure do like cake, though.

      • TopMonkey

        It’s amusing how you start off as if you are correcting me then precede to prove my point.

        • GemmaTarlach

          Thank you. Thanks for reminding me that replying to irrational individuals is like ice skating on a tropical beach. Peace be upon you. I’m out.

          • TopMonkey

            Ah, and on to the ad hominem attacks! Right on schedule. I made a clear and reasonable point. While trying to argue my point you agreed with it. Having done so you now must attack me as if that will make my point go away and make you right all the sudden. No. Doesn’t work that way. Attacking me just shows the weakness of your argument and nothing more.

  • SayWhat?

    In my opinion, human kind is a natural part of the evolution of life on earth. What if, just what if, “our” world has always been destined to become a sterile environment run by artificial intelligence? What if artificial intelligence is actually the end plan for Earth, and we/life as we know it is just a stepping stone to that end? What if AI would find what we call sterility, and deforestation and global warming, just right for them?

  • Lee Hansen

    I want to thank all of you for your insightful comments.
    Does anyone have any thoughts on where else to propose this idea, the SD Zoo has not answered yet.
    What was brought up in the comments were 2 potential problems:
    How many images would be available of “wild” Tasmania?
    And could a search program sensitive enough to detect a TT be possible?
    My computer friends say yes on the program.
    Thanks again,
    Lee

  • Lee Hansen

    Turns out the San Diego Zoo didn’t have the interest necessary to help and suggested i contact other organizations. I emailed the “Thylacine Awareness Group” in Australia. Anxiously awaiting a reply.

    • Pam Broz

      They have a Facebook page. (It’s a closed group, but I got approved in just a couple days.) I’ve learned so many interesting things!

      • Lee Hansen

        Pam, if you would, can you forward the search idea(s)? I would appreciate it immensely.
        Lee

  • Lee Hansen

    Thank you all for your insight.
    If my plan of using surveillance photos to find our friend is to work we need to know:
    How many photos are available?
    Some people have given the opinion that there would not be enough resolution to find a “striped dog” image. I don’t know, Google earth is very clear I have a few cinder blocks on my roof.
    And yes, Tasmania is very wooded but our friends HAVE to come out from under the trees sometime!

    So we’re down to this.
    Is there enough photos???????

    Anyone have insights???

  • Lee Hansen

    Update of no activity. I have emailed 2 groups hunting for evidence of live TT’s and gotten NO RESPONSE. suggesting they are more interested in the hunt and not the find. I have meet men who pursue women like that, interested in the chase not the capture. I am not one of them. Any further ideas for an organization who might ACTUALLY support this effort, even just verbally?
    Lee

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