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10 Facts About the Tasmanian Tiger

Everything You Need to Know about the Australian Thylacine

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"Benjamin," the last Tasmanian Tiger in captivity, died in 1936 (Wikimedia Commons)

tasmanian tiger

The Tasmanian Tiger's posture and pointed snout made it look more like a dog than a big cat (John Gould)

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The Tasmanian Tiger was hunted relentlessly by the European settlers of Australia (Wikimedia Commons)

The Tasmanian Tiger is to Australia what Sasquatch is to North America--a creature that's often sighted, but never actually corralled, by amateurs. The difference, of course, is that Sasquatch is mythical, while the Tasmanian Tiger was a real marsupial that only went extinct about a hundred years ago. Here are 10 facts you may or may not have known about this pouched predator.

1. The Tasmanian Tiger wasn't really a tiger...

The Tasmanian Tiger earned its name because of the distinctive stripes along its lower back and tail, which were actually more reminiscent of a hyena than a big cat. In fact, though, this "tiger" was a marsupial, and thus more closely related to wombats, koala bears and kangaroos. (Another nickname, the Tasmanian Wolf, is more apropos, given this predator's resemblance to a large dog.)

2. ...and its more appropriate name is the Thylacine.

If "Tasmanian Tiger" doesn't fit the bill, what does? Well, the genus and species name for this extinct predator is Thylacinus cynocephalus (Greek for "dog-headed pouched mammal"), but experts more commonly refer to it as the Thylacine. If that word sounds familiar, it's because it's also the root of Thylacoleo, the "marsupial lion," which vanished from Australia about 40,000 years ago.

3. The Tasmanian Tiger is a good example of convergent evolution.

Animals occupying the same ecological niches tend to evolve the same general features; witness the similarity between ancient, long-necked sauropods and modern, long-necked giraffes. For all intents and purposes, the role the Tasmanian Tiger played in Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea was "wild dog"--to the extent that researchers have a hard time distinguishing dog skulls from thylacine skulls!

4. The Tasmanian Tiger went extinct in the mid-20th century...

About 2,000 years ago, 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 last Tasmanian Tiger died in captivity in 1936, but it may yet be possible to de-extinct the breed.

5. ...but there have been numerous "sightings" to the present day.

Given how recently the last Tasmanian Tiger died, it's reasonable to assume that scattered adults roamed Australia and Tasmania into the mid-to-late 20th century--but any sightings since then are probably the result of wishful thinking. The 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. No takers yet!

6. Male Tasmanian Tigers, as well as females, had pouches.

In most marsupial species, only the females possess pouches, which they use to incubate and protect their prematurely born young. 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).

7. Tasmanian Tigers could hop like kangaroos.

Although Tasmanian Tigers looked like dogs, they didn't walk or run like modern canines. When startled, Thylacines briefly hopped on their two hind legs, and eyewitnesses attest that they moved stiffly and clumsily at high speeds. Presumably, this lack of coordination didn't help when thylacines were mercilessly hunted by Tasmanian farmers or chased by their imported dogs!

8. The Tasmanian Tiger probably hunted at night...

When the first humans encountered the Tasmanian Tiger, the Thylacine's population was already dwindling. Hence, we don't know whether the Tasmanian Tiger hunted at night as a matter of course, or if it was forced to rapidly adapt to a nocturnal lifestyle because of human pressures. In any case, it would have been much harder to find, much less shoot, a sheep-eating Thylacine in the middle of the night.

9. ...and subsisted on much smaller prey.

Until recently, paleontologists speculated that the Tasmanian Tiger was a pack animal, capably of hunting cooperatively to bring down much bigger prey--such as, for instance, the SUV-sized Giant Wombat. However, a recent study has demonstrated that the Thylacine had comparatively weak jaws, and would have been incapable of tackling anything bigger than a small wallaby or baby ostrich.

10. The Thylacine's closest living relative is the banded anteater.

There were a bewildering variety of marsupials in Australia during the Pleistocene epoch, so it can be a challenge to sort out the evolutionary relationships of any given 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.

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