Tasmanian Tiger Sightings: Thylacine Could Be Another Animal Mistaken As Extinct

Recent weeks have seen a rise in alleged Tasmanian tiger sightings, more than eight decades after the last captive animal of its kind had died. But is this Australian marsupial, which is also known as the thylacine, really emerging in the wild for the first time in about a century? If it is, that will put it among the many animals that turned out not to be extinct after all, despite long being thought of as such.

According to a report from Live Science, the thylacine was last seen in the wild sometime in the 1910s, while the last of its species in captivity had died in 1936 in Hobart, Australia’s Beaumaris Zoo. In the 81 years since then, there has been no definitive proof that Tasmanian tigers are still found in the wild, and it was only in 1986 when the animal was officially declared extinct. However, some North Queensland residents claim to have seen some Tasmanian tigers in the wild, with the sightings backed up by “plausible and detailed descriptions.”

One of the sightings supposedly took place one night in 1983, when former tour operator Brian Hobbs had seen a family of thylacine-like animals near his campsite. Thirty-four years later, he told ABC News Australia about how he had seen “sets of red eyes” looking at him that time, and coming from animals he had never seen before in his life.

“They were dog-shaped — I had a shepherd with me so I certainly know what dogs are about — and in the spotlight I could see they were tan in color and they had stripes on their sides.”

In a press statement, study co-investigator and James Cook University professor Bill Laurance announced that he and a team of researchers would be investigating the supposed Tasmanian tiger sightings, specifically centering on the Cape York Peninsula in Far North Queensland. He added that all of the sightings took place at night, but based on the witness descriptions, they don’t seem to match the physical attributes of known “large-bodied species” in the North Queensland area.

“We have cross-checked the descriptions we received of eye-shine color, body size and shape, animal behavior, and other attributes, and these are inconsistent with known attributes of other large-bodied species in North Queensland, such as dingoes, wild dogs or feral pigs.”

Despite being known as “tigers,” these animals are actually carnivorous marsupials whose scientific name Thylacinus cynocephalus literally translates to “dog-headed pouched one.” The animals first existed about four million years ago and had become common across all of Australia, but had first become extremely rare outside of Tasmania about 2,000 years ago.

The National Museum of Australia states that thylacines, who then numbered approximately 5,000, went into a severe decline in the early 19th century, as a result of factors such as hunting, introduced diseases, and the loss of their natural habitat.

If it turns out that the Tasmanian tiger isn’t extinct, it won’t be alone. There have been some cases of animals believed to be extinct for several million years, only to resurface in modern times. The most notable example is the coelacanth, a fish originally believed to have met its extinction about 65 million years ago, some 300 million years after they had first existed.

The coelacanth was believed to be extinct for about 65 million years when it was sighted in 1938. [Image by Pierre Godot/AP Images]

According to the Smithsonian‘s entry on the animal, scientists found the first living coelacanth in 1938, with this species of fish mainly calling the Comoros Islands its home. While originally believed to be exclusive to that part of the world, scientists discovered coelacanths in 1997 and 1998, spotting them in Indonesia, which is about 6,000 miles east of the Comoros.

A list from AnimalMozo also includes 22 other animals that were found alive in modern times despite their previous status as extinct. Looking at similar examples to the supposed Tasmanian tiger sightings, the article includes an entry for the Arakan Forest turtle, which was last sighted in 1908, and thought to have gone extinct around that time. The animal was rediscovered in 1994 in western Myanmar, and as it turned out, they “just hid out so well” for more than eight decades since the last time they were spotted. It is, however, a highly endangered species that remains prized as a delicacy in some parts of Asia.

The tree lobster, or the Lord Howe Island stick insect, serves as another example of an animal that went extinct within the last hundred years or so, but got rediscovered several decades later. This creature was declared extinct in 1960, only to resurface in the island Ball’s Pyramid in 2001. There’s also the takahe, a flightless bird from New Zealand that went extinct in 1898, but was spotted again in 1948; like other examples in the AnimalMozo list, only a few of this bird’s species remain at present.

If the Tasmanian tiger sightings turn out to be for real, this should be great news for conservationists, what with a long-extinct animal resurfacing after seemingly disappearing for multiple decades. But as Laurance said in his press statement, the ongoing search for thylacines will allow researchers a chance to look for other vulnerable or threatened animals on Cape York, in hopes of finding out ways to stem their decline in the wild.

[Featured Image by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images]