Remains Of “Last” Tasmanian Tiger Found; May Help Reverse Extinction Of Marsupial Predator?

Not only did the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine) disappear in 1936 but the remains of its last known representative vanished too – thought to have been discarded.

But according to the BBC the remains were simply misplaced and have been found in a museum cupboard. The thylacine died in 1936 in the Hobart Zoo at a time when it was thought there were still wild specimens. The body was shown at various museums and then apparently left uncatalogued. It was assumed to have been tossed. But a recent reconsideration of the holdings at a museum found the remains.

There may be even a bit more mystery. The current find is of an old female, but some reports say the last thylacine to die at the Hobart Zoo was named Benjamin.

Taxidermy Mount - Thylacine, <em>Thylacinus cynocephalus</em> (Harris, 1808)
A finished mount of a thylacine, not the bones and skin recently found. iTaxidermy Mount – Thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus (Harris, 1808) by Photographer: Rodney Start is licensed under CC-BY 4.0

This animal was trapped alive and given to the zoo. It died soon afterward. Because the animal was taken illegally the matter was not fully documented to protect the trapper. Thus the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery (TMAG) had no idea of the significance of the hide and bones.

According to the BBC:

“For years, many museum curators and researchers searched for its remains without success, as no thylacine material dating from 1936 had been recorded,” said Robert Paddle, who published a book in 2000 on the extinction of the species.

“It was assumed its body had been discarded.”

But he and one of the museum’s curators found an unpublished taxidermist’s report, prompting a review of the museum’s collections.

They found the missing female specimen in a cupboard in the museum’s education department.

Artist rendering of the coyote sized creature. n202_w1150 by BioDivLibrary is licensed under CC-PDM 1.0

It had been taken around Australia as a travelling exhibit but staff were unaware it was the last thylacine, curator Kathryn Medlock told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This news is a pleasant surprise.

The news comes as thylacines are being mentioned as candidates for “de-extinction,” De-extinction is a controversial process in which extinct creatures may be brought back to life in a hybrid form close to the original.

The process involves DNA sequencing of the extinct creature and the use of a near relative surrogate to bear young with a sequence of DNA as close as possible to the actual creature. One such attempt involves the wooly mammoth. Attempts are underway to create a mammoth embryo. The embryo can be carried to term by the mammoth’s closest relative, the Asian elephant. Mammoth DNA is abundant and in good condition. Asian elephants are suitable surrogate mothers.

Taxidermy Mount - Thylacine, <em>Thylacinus cynocephalus</em> (Harris, 1808)
Another view Taxidermy Mount – Thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus (Harris, 1808) by Photographer: Rodney Start is licensed under CC-BY 4.0

How the discovery of the body of the last thylacine will help in this process has not been stated. But experts say the resurrection of thylacines is a serious challenge. There is (or was) very little DNA from museum specimens to work with. The thylacines were the size of large dogs. Their nearest relative is a mouse-like marsupial, the fat tailed dunnart. The modified embryos would need to be carried in the dunnart and then surgically removed and incubated to reach term.

The entire concept faces pushback. Passenger pigeons, dodo birds and other animals are under consideration for recovery. Even the CIA is expressing interest in resurrecting mammoths. But critics contend that the money spent is better used saving species threatened with extinction today.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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