On this day in 1936, the last known survivor of the thylacine species, better known as Tasmanian tigers, is said to have died in captivity in Hobart, Australia, having only been captured a few years earlier in 1933. It was renowned as the largest carnivorous marsupial to survive into the modern age, and now that it is extinct, this honour has passed on to its close relative, the endangered Tasmanian devil.
Considerable mythmaking surrounds the Tasmanian tiger. In a 1968 interview, Frank Darby claimed to have been a Hobart Zoo zookeeper who cared for the last thylacine, who he called Benjamin. Both the zoo’s curator and publicist denied that his account was true, and even denied that Darby had ever worked at the zoo. Regardless, the last thylacine became widely referred to as “Benjamin.”
But the myth of the Tasmanian tiger began much earlier. Throughout the 20th century it was often thought that the “tiger” was a blood-drinker, a vampire dog, despite a lack of evidence. And of all the world’s officially extinct species, the thylacine has the highest number of (supposed) post-extinction sightings. These continue to the present day in Tasmania, and even occasionally on mainland Australia–in 1985 a series of five photographs purporting to show a live specimen in the wild were taken in Western Australia, and were considered sufficiently credible to be published in New Scientist the following year. However, no conclusive evidence of the Tasmanian tiger’s continued existence has ever been produced.
What we do know is that the thylacine was a nocturnal and crepuscular hunter, most active around dawn and dusk, while during daylight hours it retreated into forests or hillsides, sleeping in nests secreted away in small caves and hollowed-out tree trunks. Its full scientific name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, is Greek for “dog-headed pouched one,” and indeed it resembled a wild dog with tiger-like stripes across its back, and both males and females had backwards-facing pouches.
In the early 20th century the Tasmanian tiger was heavily persecuted by colonial shepherds and hunters, as it was thought to prey on sheep (although these claims are unsubstantiated and unlikely) but of course there were other causes of its extinction: competition with the wild dogs introduced by settlers, the spread of disease, bounty schemes, and the loss of its habitat and prey.
Experimental science may resurrect the Tasmanian tiger from the dead. In 2008, researchers from the Universities of Melbourne and Texas were able to extract genetic material from 100-year-old thylacine specimens stored in ethanol, and then using transgenesis they introduced these genes into living mice. We may, therefore, have an opportunity to see another “Benjamin” again soon.
Credit: Public domain
Caption: The “last” Tasmanian tiger, known as Benjamin.