Thylacine Sightings

Thylacine Trail Photo

Trail Camera Photo by Ray Harvey of a striped animal photographed in Queensland in 2010.

Regarded as one of the world’s most remarkable animals, the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), named in 1824 by Coenraad Jacob Temminck and placed in its own unique Thylacinidae family, was the largest living marsupial carnivore at the time of European settlement of Australia and is now generally believed to be extinct. It was common on the island of Tasmania and generally known as the native hyena, zebra opossum, marsupial wolf and Tasmanian tiger. An example of convergent evolution, in which unrelated animals adapting to environmental pressures eventually end up resembling each other, this species superficially, resembles a wolf in the head and body with somewhat similar forelimbs. The rear limbs, rump and tail somewhat resemble a kangaroo.

Weighing about 25 to 35 kg and measuring close to 2 metres in length, it is covered in short course sandy-brown fur with a series of brown bars or stripes across the back from behind the shoulders to the base of the tail and extending onto the thighs. Males are larger than females with a more robust head. The muzzle is long and narrow, the ears short, erect and furred. White fur patches around the eyes, on the cheek and nose give the face a distinctive look.

Unlike introduced dogs and foxes, the thylacine has 4 upper incisors instead of 3. It has 3 upper and lower premolars whereas dogs and foxes have four. It can open its jaws to a very wide gape and does not howl. It is said to vocalize with terrier-like yapping calls, loud coughing-barks, sounding similar to, but louder, than the coughing-grunting calls of brush tail possums, and a muted “ah-ah-ah-ah” call.

It has 5 fore toes and 4 dog-like hind toes and its gait is quite unlike a dog. Unlike wolves and dogs that have their forepaws ‘locked in’ for running, thylacines have highly flexible, manipulative forearms, with an elbow allowing for both pronation and supination of the forearm. Also unlike wolves and dogs, the thylacine can flatten its hind leg at the ankle. Consequently, it can stand on its hind feet and jump like a kangaroo, its large powerful tail giving the animal balance and acting as a rudder during swift turns and it can also run rapidly. The tail is wagged to indicate anger, held out straight when disturbed or threatened and raised straight up vertically at times when sexually aroused. A small crest of hairs at the end of the tail can be raised like hackles.

The female has a backward-opening pouch with 4 teats where usually 2 to 3 young are raised. The male also has a small pouch where the testicles are stored during active movement. Unlike dogs the penis is behind the testicles.

No living specimens were ever obtained on Mainland Australia where it is known only as a single near perfectly mummified carcass from a cave in Western Australia and as fossil bones throughout the continent and New Guinea. However, thousands of people have recorded observations of it across the nation and some photographs and videos have been obtained that appear to be of living thylacines. The majority of observation reports come from Victoria, directly north of the island of Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland.

Northern New South Wales has experienced many sightings of this most mysterious animal stalking the streets and bush land. Many local people have seen it and often describe it as looking like someone has crossed a dog with a kangaroo. It is observed at night as locals drive their cars through the wildlife corridors that surround our homes. Fishing parties at night have seen it, as have people relaxing on their verandah. Families pedaling their bicycles during the day have seen it. At first, they believe that the animal is a dog or fox. Closer observations reveal unexpected characteristics. “What on Earth is this?” they ask themselves.

Families have their own names for it. The Devil Dog, the Hound from Hell, the Ocean Shores Oddity, the Billinudgel Beast, the Mullumbimby Monster and the Byron Beast. Every Wednesday morning at 6.20 am on 94.5 FM North Coast Local ABC Radio you can listen and speak with me on my Wildlife Talk-back broadcasts which have been continuing since 1997. I talk about the seasonal behaviour of local wildlife and identify fauna species for listeners from their descriptions of physical features or calls. On Tuesday 18 November 1997 I received 3 separate mainland thylacine records for north east NSW, which made the local news service. Since that time I have received many more reports of these animals and some have made the local news service on radio, TV and newspapers.

Perhaps these animals are just mangy foxes or wild dogs. Farmers and other rural dwellers regularly observe these introduced species. However, the descriptions sound more like an animal that is supposed to be extinct. The strange, waddling gait, the kangaroo-like tail and the brown bands across the back remind us of the remarkable thylacine. Like the koala and the kangaroo, the thylacine is a unique Australian marsupial. It differs from them in that it hunts other animals for its food and so is a meat eater like its relatives the Tasmanian devil and the spotted quolls.

Believed to be extinct in Australia for perhaps 3000 years due to competition from the introduction of the domestic dingo dog, it continued to survive in Tasmania until 1936 when the last captive thylacine died. It appears to have succumbed to hunting, habitat destruction and perhaps introduced diseases. A research team at the Faculty of Veterinary Science has previously shown low immune gene diversity was critical in the spread of the contagious facial cancer that has wiped out large numbers of Tasmanian devils and similar low immune gene diversity in the thylacine has probably been instrumental in its decline.

Bob Paddle, respected authority and author of The Last Tasmanian Tiger (Paddle 2000) studied the detailed records of the Tasmanian Government and the various sheep farming companies and found that the species rarely ever preyed on domestic stock and was only occasionally observed or captured. He states “Notwithstanding popular perceptions, by 1883 concern is common in scientific circles about the future of the species, its rarity and the difficulty of obtaining specimens, alive or dead.  …Unquestionably, the occasional thylacine took the occasional sheep, but the threat posed to the industry may best be summarised by recalling that, for the first eighty years of settlement to 1883, I have found only six original, published accounts based on ‘eye-witness’ observation that detail specific incidents in which thylacines preyed upon sheep” (Paddle, 2000). These few attacks were primarily on new born lambs.

Because it was a large predatory animal is was commonly regarded as a savage and dangerous species able to exterminate whole flocks of sheep. Upon the examination of the records it is apparent that sheep losses were actually attributable to freezing weather conditions, Aboriginal hunters, feral dogs and sheep rustlers. Eric Guiler, respected authority and author of several articles and books on thylacines states that “The tables of stock increases from Woolnorth from 1830-34 give no losses due to thylacines nor do they pass comment on this topic although they record all sorts of other calamities” (Guiler, 1985,p.95).

Even though there was almost no predation on sheep by thylacines, the Van Diemen’s Land Company initiated a bounty scheme from 1831 paying 10 shillings per head and introduced a second bounty scheme in 1840 paying 6 shillings per head. Paddle states “Whatever the real reason for the construction of this second thylacine bounty, it appears to have had little to do with the actual behaviour of thylacines living on the Van Diemen’s Land Company holdings 350,000 acres. I believe that this second bounty, like the first, was designed to suit a political and economic end: creating a smoke screen to help excuse the reality of the Company’s immanent economic collapse” (Paddle, 2000).

There has long been a general belief that the thylacine must be extinct because of a lack of recent domestic animal killings attributable to it. Recent scientific studies of thylacine jaws have proven that the animals did not hunt sheep, kangaroos, wallabies, emus and wombats as had been believed simply because it was a dog-sized predator.

Its jaws were so weak that it would have been restricted to hunting much smaller prey, according to researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

“It probably wouldn’t have been able to tackle such a large animal, like a sheep,” said doctoral student Marie Attard, lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Zoology. Using a thylacine skull and advanced computer modelling techniques, the research team simulated its hunting actions, such as biting, tearing and pulling. They then determined areas of stress in the skull, using the same software as engineers testing for weak spots in structures, and compared this to the skulls of a Tasmanian devil and a spotted-tail quoll.

“The thylacine had a much higher level of stress in the skull,” said Ms Attard. “It pretty much lit up with high levels of stress.”

The stresses on the skull from the simulations of biting struggling prey enabled the researchers to predict the likely body size of the thylacine’s prey. In spite of the thylacine’s 30 kilogram body mass and carnivorous diet, its weak jaws limited it to small, agile prey, such as possums and bandicoots.

“The thylacine’s inability to take large prey would have had serious implications for its survival, as this would have driven it into a specialised niche. On top of that, its teeth reveal that it was a hyper-carnivore and poorly adapted to eating bone, invertebrates or plants” (Boness 2011).

This statement seems poorly thought out. Large herbivores are less common then small bushland animals such as bandicoots, possums and bush rats. A predator adapted to hunting the most common animals would be less specialised that a predator hunting large prey species.

Except for a couple of incidents of it taking domestic poultry, the reported observations of this supposedly extinct species are that it is always observed foraging opportunistically. It has been observed feeding on road kills and observed as it hunts through bushland, adjacent roads and even through small towns and urban areas adjacent nature reserves, searching for small prey. Large numbers of swamp wallaby and red-necked wallaby are recorded and easily observed throughout the region and these do not appear to suffer much from thylacine predation. Unlike the old false remarks that the species is a vicious killer of domestic animals and large native fauna, the thylacine appears to prey on small animals, most likely bandicoots, possums and bush rats, these being the most abundant terrestrial small to medium sized mammals. Bandicoots in particular have only a 13 day gestation period and can have up to seven pouch young, a response to high predation rates.

Most of the observations of these unidentified animals were made from cars though some observations were made whilst the witness was walking, bicycle riding, or from their home or at work. All of these observations were made whilst the witness was going about their normal lives, driving back & forth. Most only observe the animal on a single occasion even though they may have travelled the road countless times. Usually only one animal was observed but two or more have been also reported.

Most of these observations only lasted for a minute or two, as the animal crossed a road or paddock. Most observations have been at night though others have been observed during daylight & all were close observations usually only a few metres away so that very good descriptions could be recorded.

As is normal practise, most people were not carrying cameras with them in the hope that something remarkable would occur worthy of photography. If they did happen to have a camera, the witness would at first think it was not an interesting subject to photograph. When they realised how unusual it was and they found that they did not have enough time to retrieve the camera before the animal moved off. However, many witnesses have stated that they now carry cameras with them just in case they view the animal once more.

Many people did not know of the existence of the thylacine & believed that it was some freak of nature wherein someone had hybridized a dog with a kangaroo. Others recognised it as an animal that they had previously seen as an old black and white photo or drawing but generally could not remember the name of the animal or how rare or unusual it was. However, some witnesses were very well acquainted with native plants and animals and were amazed to observe an animal that they were positive did not exist in this locality.

Since its supposed extinction there have been hundreds of reported sightings in both Tasmania and the Australian mainland. Some controversial photographs have been taken but no definite evidence has been forthcoming to prove the animal still exists. Scientists at the Australian Museum have been trying to clone a thylacine from a juvenile preserved in alcohol.

The reports that I have collected appear to describe the survival of a small number of these animals in the rugged wilderness of the Whian Whian, Nightcap and the Border Ranges. The theory is that over the years, the population has increased and now they are being observed in the coastal nature reserves. Like the Whian Whian Oak, the Wollemi Pine and other supposedly extinct species, there is a possibility that a most wonderful Australian has returned. Some researchers have spent years searching localities where it has been reported and have set up automatic cameras that photograph anything that moves past.

That is how Ray Harvey was able to take the tantalizing photo at the beginning of this article at 8.05 am on the 22nd May 2012. Could this be the first photograph of an endangered species that is supposed to be extinct? There has been the occasional report of such an animal lying on the side of the road, the victim of a vehicle impact. Such specimens, if found, should be taken to the national parks service for identification.

It is not a dangerous animal and early last century in Tasmania it was kept just like a pet dog. Ancient cave paintings in Kakadu in the north of Australia illustrate thylacines carrying dilly bags around the neck so it was a companion of Aboriginal people before the dingo arrived from South-east Asia. Because it is a carnivore, it is naturally cryptic, hiding in the vegetation to spring out onto small animals. It lives in small family groups that range widely over large territories. Perhaps it is long extinct and people are only seeing mangy foxes or dogs. Keep your eyes open & if you think that you have observed something unusual write down a description noting the date, time and place and you can contact me at garyopit@gmail.com.