Not Extinct? Tasmanian Tiger ‘Sightings’ Offer Hope To Scientists

In 1936, the last known Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in Hobart zoo, leading to the extinction of these unusual creatures. However, recent “believable” sightings have been reported in northern Queensland, prompting scientists to launch a search to discover if this species has indeed risen from the dead.

Also known as a thylacine—short for its scientific name Thylacinus cynocephalus, which means “dog-headed pouched one” in Greek—the Tasmanian tiger was a somewhat timid, nocturnal animal which resembled a tiger-striped, medium to large dog with a stiff tail. The animals were formidable apex predators, who could survive in areas where prey was scarce.

Tasmanian tigers were marsupials, which means they carried their young in an abdominal pouch, similar to kangaroos. However, unlike kangaroos, the pouch was present on both sexes in Tasmanian tigers, a rare trait they shared with only one other marsupial, the water opossum. While the female Tasmanian tiger used her pouch to raise young, the male used his as a protective covering for his bifurcated penis, which was separated into two shafts (female marsupials have two vaginas).

Young boy looking at a stuffed Tasmanian tiger in a display case at a museum in Sydney, Australia.
This boy may someday see a living Tasmanian tiger. [Image by Rick Ry/ AP Images]

By the time British settlers arrived, the Tasmanian tiger was already extinct, or at least extremely rare, on the Australian mainland. However, thylacines still lived on the island of Tasmania, which is why they were more commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf.

Like many other species, such as the dodo and passenger pigeon, blame for the Tasmanian tiger’s extinction is usually placed on mankind; the animal was hunted heavily, which was encouraged by the bounties hunters were offered. Other factors leading to its extinction include competition from dogs, disease, and human take-over of its habitat.

However, if the sightings prove true, mankind might have another shot with the Tasmanian tiger—no pun intended.

The sightings

Many sightings of Tasmanian tigers have been reported in the past. Even tourists sometimes get in on the quest to rediscover this elusive beast by going on “Tassie tiger hunts,” which are expeditions offered by some lodges in the area.

But, in the past, scientists usually took such sightings as seriously as reports of Elvis eating a slice of pie at a diner in Albuquerque. However, more plausible sightings of a dog-like creature in the far corners of northern Queenland have now piqued the interest of scientists at James Cook University in Australia.

These eyewitness accounts of a creature, neither fox nor dingo, may prove that Tasmanian tigers are not extinct after all.

Bill Laurance, distinguished professor at James Cook University, has spoken to two of the eyewitnesses who gave believable, detailed descriptions of animals they had sighted in Cape York peninsula. In the Guardian, Professor Laurance stated,

“In one case four animals were observed at close range – about 20 feet away – with a spotlight.”

The sightings took place at night, which would fit the habits of the nocturnal Tasmanian tiger. By the descriptions offered, scientists were able to rule out other large species native to the area, such as wild pigs and dogs.

Laurance also mentioned that the eye witnesses were at first reluctant to tell their story, because Tasmanian tiger sightings are usually the realm of “kooks or fringe types”.

In hope that these plausible sightings are the real deal, scientists plan to head up north as soon as April, where they will set up more than fifty camera traps in different locations. If all goes well, they will capture footage of an actual flesh-and-blood Tasmanian tiger, the resurrection of a species believed to be extinct for more than 80 years.

If not, scientists are still looking forward to surveying the area and gathering useful data on the local wildlife, which has sadly been in decline in recent years.

[Featured Image by Zulfikar Ilyas/Shutterstock]