10 Facts About the Tasmanian Tiger

Thylacine cynocephalus (Tasmanian Tiger)

  JW Lewin/ Paul K/ flickr

The Tasmanian Tiger is to Australia what Sasquatch is to North America—a creature that has often been sighted but never actually corralled, by deluded amateurs. The difference, of course, is that Sasquatch is entirely mythical, while the Tasmanian Tiger was a real marsupial that only went extinct about a hundred years ago. 

01
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The Tasmanian Tiger Wasn't Really a Tiger

Thylacine with three cubs, Hobart Zoo, 1909

 Wikimedia Commons

The Tasmanian Tiger earned its name because of the distinctive tiger-like stripes along its lower back and tail, which were more reminiscent of a hyena than a big cat. Though this "tiger" was a marsupial, complete with a characteristic marsupial pouch in which the females gestated their young, and thus was more closely related to wombats, koala bears, and kangaroos. Another common nickname, the Tasmanian Wolf, is a bit more relevant, given this animal's resemblance to a large dog.

02
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The Tasmanian Tiger Is Also Known as the Thylacine

National Museum of Australia Thylacine Skeleton

Gordon Makryllos/ Wikimedia Commons

If "Tasmanian Tiger" is a deceptive name, where does that leave us? Well, the genus and species name of this extinct predator is Thylacinus cynocephalus (literally, Greek for "dog-headed pouched mammal"), but naturalists and paleontologists more commonly refer to it as the Thylacine. If that word sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it contains one of the roots of Thylacoleo, the "marsupial lion," a saber-toothed tiger-like predator that vanished from Australia about 40,000 years ago.

03
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The Tasmanian Tiger Went Extinct in the Mid-20th Century

Thylacine stamp

Christopher May/ Wikimedia 

About 2,000 years ago, yielding to pressure from indigenous human settlers, Australia's Thylacine population dwindled rapidly. The last holdouts of the breed persisted on the island of Tasmania, off the Australian coast, until the late 19th century, when the Tasmanian government put a bounty on thylacines because of their predilection for eating sheep, the lifeblood of the local economy. The last Tasmanian Tiger died in captivity in 1936, but it may yet be possible to de-extinct the breed by recovering some fragments of its DNA.

04
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Both Male and Female Tasmanian Tigers Had Pouches

Tasmanian Tiger

 Wikimedia Commons

In most marsupial species, only the females possess pouches, which they use to incubate and protect their prematurely born young (as opposed to placental mammals, which produce their fetuses in an internal womb). Oddly enough, Tasmanian Tiger males also had pouches, which covered their testicles when circumstances demanded--presumably when it was bitterly cold outside or when they were fighting with other Thylacine males for the right to mate with females.

05
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Tasmanian Tigers Sometimes Hopped Like Kangaroos

Artwork depicting Tasmanian Tiger

Wikimedia Commons

Although Tasmanian Tigers looked like dogs, they didn't walk or run like modern canines, and they certainly didn't lend themselves to domestication. When startled, Thylacines briefly and nervously hopped on their two hind legs, and eyewitnesses attest that they moved stiffly and clumsily at high speeds, unlike wolves or big cats. Presumably, this lack of coordination didn't help when Tasmanian farmers mercilessly hunted, or their imported dogs chased the Thylacines.

06
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The Tasmanian Tiger Is a Typical Example of Convergent Evolution

Thylacine stuffed specimen

 Momotarou2012 / Wikimedia Commons

Animals occupying similar ecological niches tend to evolve the same general features; witness the similarity between ancient, long-necked sauropod dinosaurs and modern, long-necked giraffes. Even though it wasn't technically a canine, the role the Tasmanian Tiger played in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea was "wild dog"--to the extent that, even today, researchers often have a hard time distinguishing dog skulls from thylacine skulls.

07
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The Tasmanian Tiger Probably Hunted at Night

Tasmanian Tiger in captivity

 Wikimedia Commons

By the time the first indigenous humans encountered the Tasmanian Tiger, thousands of years ago, the Thylacine's population was already dwindling. Hence, we don't know whether the Tasmanian Tiger hunted at night as a matter of course, as European settlers noted at the time, or if it had been forced to rapidly adopt a nocturnal lifestyle because of centuries of human encroachment. In any case, it was much harder for European farmers to find, much less shoot, sheep-eating Thylacines in the middle of the night.

08
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The Tasmanian Tiger Had a Surprisingly Weak Bite

Last female Tasmanian Tiger to be captured for captivity before extinction.

 John Carnemolla/Getty Images

Until recently, paleontologists speculated that the Tasmanian Tiger was a pack animal, capable of hunting cooperatively to bring down much larger prey--such as, for instance, the SUV-sized Giant Wombat, which weighed over two tons. However, a recent study has demonstrated that the Thylacine possessed comparatively weak jaws compared to other predators, and would have been incapable of tackling anything bigger than the small wallabies and baby ostriches.

09
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The Thylacine's Closest Living Relative Is the Banded Anteater

The Numbat, the closest living relative of the Tasmanian Tiger.

Wikimedia Commons

There were a bewildering variety of ancestral marsupials in Australia during the Pleistocene epoch, so it can be a challenge to sort out the evolutionary relationships of any given genus or species. It was once thought that the Tasmanian Tiger was closely related to the still-extant Tasmanian Devil, but now the evidence points to closer kinship with the Numbat, or banded anteater, a smaller and much less exotic beast.

10
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Some People Insist the Tasmanian Tiger Still Exists

Grant Museum of Zoology

 Wikimedia Commons

Given how recently the last Tasmanian Tiger died, in 1936, it's reasonable to assume that scattered adults roamed Australia and Tasmania well into the mid-to-late 20th century--but any sightings since then are the result of wishful thinking. The slightly off-kilter American media tycoon Ted Turner offered a $100,000 bounty for a living Thylacine in 1983, and in 2005 an Australian news magazine upped the prize to $1.25 million. There haven't been any takers yet, a good indication that the Tasmanian Tiger is truly extinct.