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The Thylacine

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What was the thylacine?

The thylacine was a marsupial that looked like a wolf or a dog but was related to kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. It was also called the marsupial wolf, kangaroo wolf, pouched wolf, native wolf, opossum hyena, native hyena, dog-faced dasyures, dog-headed opossum, zebra opossum, native tiger and most famously, the Tasmanian tiger. Its scientific name is thylacinus cynocephalus which means ‘a pouched dog with a wolfs head'.

Although its appearance was dog or wolf-like, it was clearly a different species. The most prominent feature of the thylacine was its stripes. They generally numbered between 13 and 21 and were a dark brown or black colour that extended from just behind the shoulder, gradually increasing in width and length towards the thylacine’s hindquarters and ending just past the base of the tail. The largest stripe was on the thigh and ended just above the knee, often splitting at the tip.

Its head was longer than that of a wolf and its legs were proportionately shorter as well.

The thylacine had prominent canine teeth that weren't fully concealed by the lips. They had shearing molar teeth and the gape of the jaw was known to open quite wide. Some say over 180* but that would be anatomically impossible as 90* would result in a dislocated mandible.

Its eyes were large and black, which being a mostly nocturnal animal, helped it see better at night. Its tail was rigid and thick at the base where it joined the body. The hair was short, soft and dense and was usually a fawn or sandy brown colour. It was also known to vary in colours from a light grey to a dark brown.

Although there have been specimens measured at over 180cm in length, the average length of an adult male thylacine, from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, was 162.6cm, compared with an adult female thylacine, which was 153.7cm. (an example of sexual dimorphism perhaps?) Its height was about 58cm at the shoulders and they weighed anything from 15 - 35kg.

As with all marsupials, the scrotum was anterior, which means the penis was positioned closer to the tale. The male's scrotum was pendulous, but partly covered by a cavity or pouch in the abdomen.

The female had a large, backwards facing pouch with 4 teats indicating a probable litter size of 3 - 4. Breeding most probably occurred during winter and spring, although it was thought that they bred in the month of December. Like all marsupials when they are born, the tiny, pink and hairless pups had to find their way into the mother’s pouch where they would stay for around 3 months until the mothers pouch was almost touching the ground. These large pouch-young had fur with stripes already and the mother would leave them in a well hidden lair such as a deep cave or hollow log when she went out to hunt.

Hunting usually occurred during the late evening to early morning hours. Being the world’s largest marsupial carnivore, the thylacine was exclusively carnivorous feeding mostly on wallabies, kangaroos, wombats, bandicoots, echidnas, ground birds and bats. Although they were said to have attacked the chickens, sheep and livestock from farms, there is not a whole lot of proof that they actually did. The thylacine wasn't a fast runner so it probably used its keen sense of smell to track and exhaust its prey over long distances. In captivity they were fed dead rabbits and wallabies which they would eat entirely. They were able to eat large amounts of food at one time due to their muscular stomach which had an ability to distend. This would have helped them immensely when on unsuccessful hunts or when the food source was low.

The thylacine’s lifespan, as with most aspects of their lives, is not entirely known. A captive individual lived in the London Zoo for nearly eight and a half years, making it over nine years old when it died. Another specimen lived in the Beaumaris Zoo in Tasmania for twelve years.

Based on this information, it has been suggested that the thylacines life expectancy in the wild was between 5 - 7 years. Some disagree on this notion however as one of its closest relatives, the Tasmanian devil, lives longer in the wild than it does in captivity. This means that the thylacine could have possibly lived for up to 12 – 14 years in the wild.

The thylacine was mostly silent. The sounds that have been reported to have come from the thylacine were a cough-like bark and a dull, hoarse growl or snarl. When hunting, the thylacine gave a distinctive terrier-like double-yap, repeated every few seconds. There are no recordings of a thylacine available today.

The thylacine was a very shy animal that always tried to avoid contact with humans. Compared with its little cousin the Tasmanian devil, it had a quiet, nervous temperament. When a thylacine was captured, it generally gave up without a struggle and many were reported to have died suddenly from apparent shock.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 July 2010 16:17  

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