The Thylacine Mystery

It is no secret that the human race loves anything that has an air of mystery about it. Throughout our history we have always dabbled in myth, legend and mystery, with some of those tales still living on today. Vampires, fairies, and werewolves have been used in literature and film to create some of our favourite tales of fiction. These legends however are generally regarded as myth, with most people not believing that vampires roam the streets, or that werewolves rule every night of the full moon. Some legends however, are believed by some and still today there are many who present ‘evidence’ to suggest that some legends are not legends after all, but fact. Animal or creature legends exist in every country, in the UK, some of our most famous include the loch ness monster and the beast of Bodmin moor. Again, most people believe the tale of nessie to be myth and they do not believe that a giant black wolf like dog creature terrorises the moorlands of Bodmin. Such creatures are believed never to have existed, with ‘sightings’ likely being other animals, or tricks of the mind. But what about when that mystery surrounds a true creature? What if an animal that had once existed, but was now believed extinct, appeared to be showing itself once again? Well, this is exactly what is happening to our Australian cousins. What are many claiming to have seen? The thylacine.

Thylacine. It certainly sounds like a creature of legend, but the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, did once exist in Australia. A dog sized, carnivorous marsupial, the thylacine’s closest relative is known to be the Tasmanian devil. Originally it was believed that the thylacine was native to Tasmania, but scientists now believe it was once widespread not only across Tasmania, but also in Australia and Papa New Guinea. The downfall of the thylacine, like so many other animals, was the human. In 1824, sheep were introduced to the grazing lands of Tasmania when thylacines were still widespread. No doubt the thylacine, which was adapted to hunting much faster prey such as kangaroos and birds, saw sheep as an easy meal and began to prey on farmers livestock. This of course did not go unnoticed or unpunished by humans and soon the thylacine became an animal to be hunted, with bounties being placed on their heads. Fast forward to the beginning of the 1900s and the thylacine is now a rare animal, with zoos from all over the world wanting a specimen for their collection. Whilst captive thylacines did not thrive in zoo environments and did not survive long, their wild counterparts were also suffering, from habitat destruction and disease. The last known thylacine was captured in 1933 and kept in Hobart Zoo. On September the 7th 1936, the last thylacine died and became the first known species to become extinct in Tasmania.

However, their apparent extinction has done little to deter sightings of the thylacine being recorded across Australia and Tasmania. In the 1960s there were many reported sightings of the species, though none were ever confirmed, with many photographs found to be feral dogs or foxes. With increased levels of technology such as night vision cameras the 21st century has proven to be something of a hotbed for new thylacine sightings, with the magazine ‘The Bulletin’ offering a A$1.25 million reward for the capture of a live thylacine. Many people now claim to have captured the thylacine on camera, and many more have said to have had run-ins with the species. In fact, the idea that the thylacine is still alive is so well believed among some that the Thylacine Awareness Group was founded, where members share their experiences and present ‘evidence’, which they believe proves this extinct animal to still be living. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these beliefs have been labelled as ‘outlandish’ by some and many rebuff the belief that the thylacine is still in existence. The Thylacine Awareness Groups counter-argument? What would we have to gain from lying?

Some of the most recent footage to emerge of a ‘thylacine’ was shot in Western Australia, by a women who left a camera running overnight after she claimed to have seen many thylacines on her property. Since the release of this footage, debate has raged as to whether the film shows an actual thylacine or just a fox or a dingo with mange. Those of the Thylacine Awareness Group claim to represent 3000 people who have been told that they are ‘bonkers’ to believe in a living thylacine, but they remain defiant, arguing that some species believed to be extinct have been rediscovered, such as the sea snake in Western Australia. The Holy Grail of proof to thylacine believers? The discovery of a thylacine body.

The scientific community denies the claim that the thylacine may still be alive and in some cases, find the claim to be almost amusing. Scientists are so certain in the extinction of the thylacine that they are looking into the possible resurrection of the species through genetic cloning. Andrew Pask, from the University of Melbourne, says that technology is yet to reach the level where a thylacine could be cloned anew, but that they do have the entire DNA sequence of the animal.

“I would love, love, love to believe they’re still out there, but unfortunately I think all of the evidence points to the contrary on that front.”

Australia is known as a hotbed of extinction, with over 30 species being declared extinct since the European settlement, therefore, the idea that the thylacine did indeed succumb to extinction is not unorthodox. There are others suggestions that these thylacine ‘sightings’ and images could be of an ‘undiscovered marsupial’, with some suggesting it possible that there are unknown megafauna species living in Australia. Unfortunately, the existing footage that claims to show thylacines leaves a lot to be desired. Although some claim that the movement and certain features of the animals caught on film are reminiscent of the thylacine, we do not have a distinctive image that shows us what these animals are.

For now the debate surrounding the thylacine remains unresolved. They’re are many believers, but they’re many who outright deny such a claim. Are these sightings and run-ins just experiences with foxes, feral dogs, or even a yet to be discovered species? Or are they indeed the supposedly extinct thylacine? It is an issue that you form your own opinion on. Personally, I would be inclined to believe the science, but I have not seen or had the experiences that others have. It may be that those who believe the thylacine to still be living are clinging to a hope, but it is a hope that believes our planet is still home to a magnificent species that many think lost. A hope that for all the species humans have caused to go extinct, some may have defied the odds and survived. On this issue, I for one know I would love to be proven wrong.

Follow me on twitter for nature news and wildlife photography @DaisyEleanorug




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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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