Dog-like, with stripes. Thinkstock Dog-like, with stripes. Thinkstock
The thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian tiger, has been officially extinct for 80 years. Now, reported sightings have set Australian scientists on a fresh search for the animal.
Although native to Tasmania, the thylacine was not really a tiger but a carnivorous marsupial. The last confirmed report of a sighting in Tasmania was in 1930, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the last captive animal died in 1936. A post on the IUCN website says the thylacine was driven to extinction primarily by direct persecution, but habitat loss, competition with domestic dogs and disease all played a role.
The newly reported sightings have taken place in mainland Australia: in Queensland. The field survey, undertaken by James Cook University, will be led by Dr Sandra Abell, using more than 50 high-tech “camera traps” to survey prospective sites, according to a post on the university website.
The post describes co-investigator Professor Bill Laurance’s discussions with two people in north Queensland who have “provided plausible and detailed descriptions of animals that could potentially be thylacines”. “One of those observers was a long-time employee of the Queensland National Parks Service, and the other was a frequent camper and outdoorsman in north Queensland,” Professor Laurance is quoted as saying.
The thylacine had the general appearance of a large dog, except for its stiff tail and abdominal pouch. Dark stripes that radiated from the top of its back, similar to those of a tiger, led to its unofficial name. It is believed to have been a shy, nocturnal creature, its extinction hastened by the arrival of European settlers.
In mainland Australia, the thylacine is believed to have been near-extinct for centuries. In Tasmania, the last captive thylacine died in Hobart zoo three years after its capture in 1933. Photos and videos of this last known specimen, named “Benjamin” but possibly female according to some suggestions, are in wide circulation on the internet.
Several sightings have been reported over the years but none was conclusively proven. Now, scientists find the newly reported sightings “plausible”. “We have cross-checked the descriptions we received of eyeshine colour, body size and shape, animal behaviour, 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,” Professor Laurance says on the James Cook University website.
National Geographic Australia quotes one of those who reported a sighting. “These animals, I’ve never seen anything like them before in my life. They were dog-shaped… and in the spotlight, I could see they were tan in colour, and they had stripes on their sides,” former tourism operator Brian Hobbs told the magazine.
“Can it be true?” tweeted Richard Dawkins, the English ethologist and popular science author. “Has Thylacinus been seen alive? And in mainland Australia not Tasmania? I so want it to be true.”
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