Extinction may not be forever anymore as scientists have announced a serious effort to reverse the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger. The tiger, or Thylacine, probably went extinct in 1936. In that year the last captive tiger died. He was named Benjamin and died in the Hobart Zoo.
There is some doubt about whether Benjamin was in fact the last tiger, as some researchers are hoping against hope that a few still live in the wild.
The tiger was both the ap ex predator of the continent and a marsupial which has implications for the resurrection of the species. Marsupials are pouched mammals and most live in Australia and New Guinea. There are three in the Americas. Only the opossum lives in North America.
A group of ambitious scientists has announced plans to “de-extinct” the predator by creating a hybrid that will be as close as possible to the Thylacine.
The effort will involve cutting edge technology and has implications for the future of marsupials. Marsupials are under threat in Australia from extensive fires and from invasive species including housecats. Many marsupials are relatively helpless and fall easy prey to introduced predators. In fact a DNA bank has been established to protect marsupials. The banks will take advantage of this project and future advances.
The first step is to sequence the DNA of the thylacine. That may prove difficult as the samples are old and may be degraded. The next step will be to use the dunnart as a surrogate. A dunnart is a predatory marsupial and the closest living relative to the thylacine.
The thylacine sequence will be edited with the dunnart sequence to recreate a hybrid Thylacine. The tiger was about the size of a coyote and the dunnart is the size of a mouse. This should not pose the obvious problem for using dunnarts as surrogates. Marsupials deliver tiny offspring, some the size of a grain of rice. They develop in the mother’s pouch. Tiny thylacine hybrids should be able to be borne by dunnarts and raised with human help.
Assuming the project reaches this level of success problems remain. The new creature may not be truly viable for a number of reasons. If viable, reintroducing it into Australia also poses difficulties.
Andrew Pask, a professor at the University of Melbourne and head of its Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab, who is leading the initiative, spoke to CNN:
“Our ultimate goal with this technology is to restore these species to the wild, where they played absolutely essential roles in the ecosystem. So our ultimate hope is that you would be seeing them in the Tasmanian bushland again one day,” he said.
The fat-tailed dunnart is much smaller than an adult Tasmanian tiger, but Pask said that all marsupials give birth to tiny young, sometimes as small as a grain of rice. This means that even a mouse-size marsupial could serve as a surrogate mother for a much larger adult animal like the thylacine, at least in the early stages.
Reintroducing the thylacine to its former habit would have to be done very cautiously, Pask added.
“Any release such as this requires studying the animal and its interaction in the ecosystem over many seasons and in large areas of enclosed land before you would consider a complete rewilding,” he said.
ed to protect against extinction from fires,” Pask said via email.
“However, we still lack the technology to take that tissue — create marsupial stem cells — and then turn those cells into a living animal. That is the technology we will develop as a part of this project.”