Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine and the last known living and largest carnivorous marsupial...long live the Opossum!

There are many mysteries surrounding the Thylacine, or Thylacinus cynocephalus to use its correct name, that remain to this day. Commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger, it is the only member of the Thylacinidae family to exist within historical times. The Thylacine was a carnivorous mammal with very unusual physical features. One early European who observed the Tasmanian Tiger referred to it as "a kangaroo masquerading as a wolf" and saying it had the head and teeth of a wolf, the stripes of a tiger, the tail of a kangaroo and the backward-opening pouch of an opossum.

The Thylacine was in fact a strange looking animal. Looking somewhat like a large dog, but with a stiff and pointing tail that gradually tapered from the body. It ranged in colour from a greyish brown through to yellowish brown with 12 to 20 dark brown to black stripes running from the tip of the tail to almost the shoulder. It also sported faint white markings around the mouth, ears and eyes. The female had a rear opening pouch. The Thylacine was digitigrade, meaning it walked on its toes, giving it a stiff and awkward gait.

While the Tasmanian Tiger derived its name from its appearance and habitat it did, at one time, inhabit the Australian mainland and New Guinea. It is commonly believed the competition by the Indigenous population as well as the introduction of the Dingo led to its demise from the main lands, with Tasmania providing a safe haven.

Unfortunately European settlers, blaming the Thylacine for large sheep losses, hunted them to the point extinction. In the early 1840s private bounties began to be taken out on the Thylacine, by the early 1860s their habitat had been almost entirely restricted to the mountanous and remote parts of the island. Over 2000 Thylacines were killed for a government bounty between 1888 and 1909.

By 1905 the Thylacine population had decreased dramatically and by 1915 sightings were rare. The last know wild animal shot was on 30 May 1930, and the last captive animal died at Hobart Zoo on September 7, 1936. In 1936 legal protective status was gained but by then the wild population were at critical numbers. In 1966 a wildlife reserve was established in the Thylacines last known habitat but no solid proof of their continued existence had been seen.

Sightings are still recorded to this day. In 1953 a rabbit trapper caught what he claimed was a Tasmanian Tiger, its hide was later taken by Flora and Fauna Services. In 1970, a timber getter, his father, brother and a friend, all witnessed an animal they described as a Thylacine. In 1980, a women travelling with her two children stated she saw a Thylacine approximately 10 meters away from her around her chicken coop. Again in 1981, 1982, 1988 and 1989 clear sightings were recorded by four separate couples while traveling or walking through bush areas in Tasmania. One of the observers involved said of the animal: "it had a whip like tail and had stripes on it. It looked like a dog but it sure was no dog". All of these sightings occurred within close proximity in location and time in the north eastern Tasmania adjacent to the Panama Forest.

In 2005, two German tourists set off a media frenzy when they reported seeing, and photographing, a Tasmanian Tiger. The media quickly entered into the debate of whether the Thylacine was still living out there somewhere. The Bulletin even went as far as to offer an Aus$1.25 million dollar reward for the capture of a "live, uninjured specimen'. Another company chipped in further Aus$1.75 million. Bringing the total to $3 million Australian dollars (Both of these offers have since expired). It even prompted the director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Bill Bleathman, to propose the museum and magazine embark on a joint program of long-term research to investigate the many sightings reported to the museum.

While no firm proof has been received to date confirming that the Thylacine does still exist, many believe it is only a matter of time until this will be found. Their natural habitat is slowly becoming smaller as we encroach on the isolated areas of Tasmania through logging, farmland and residential areas. Only time will tell if, in fact, the Thylacine has been lurking out there the whole time.

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