Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Last Tasmanian Wolf Checks Out

The last Tasmanian Wolf in captivity, 1936
On September 7, 1936 workers at the Beaumaris Zoo found the body of the last known thylacine or Tasmanian wolf, a/k/a the Tasmanian tiger because of striped markings on its back.  

The animal, captured on the Australian island had been in captivity at the zoo for three years. 

The apparently healthy animal, a prized zoo exhibition, had been inadvertently locked out of its indoor sleeping quarters and died of exposure following a day of extreme heat followed by sub-freezing temperatures at night.

The thylacine was the largest of the marsupial predators of Australia.  Resembling a dog, it held the ecological niche occupied by wolves, coyotes, and big cats on other continents.  The dingo, a wild dog introduced to the continent  thousands of years ealier probably on boats visiting from Asia, slowly encroached on the thylacine’s habitat.  The alien invader had nearly completely supplanted it on the mainland nearly 2000 years ago, especially after it became a hunting companion to native Aborigines.  They were probably completely gone not long after Europeans arrived in large numbers.  1830 is usually given as the likely extinction date on the continent.

But they continued to thrive on the isolated island of Tasmania off the south east coast of the mainland.  As settlers arrived, they were pegged as sheep killers, although research indicates that they were too weak to pull down sheep and fed mostly on small marsupials and rodents.  But the reputation got a bounty placed on their ears and they were hunted mercilessly.  Domestic dogs which became feral also became a competitor for food sources.   By the late 19th Century they were extremely rare, which made them attractive as trophies for sports hunters.  As early as 1908 some attempts were being made to save the species from extinction.  To no avail.  

The last one to be killed in the wild was shot by a local farmer in the northeast of the island in 1930.  Three years later the specimen taken to the Beaumaris Zoo was captured.  No confirmed sightings have been made since.

There have been numerous reported sightings both on the mainland and on the island since then, complete with the same questionable blurry photos and snips of grainy film footage that is the hallmark of sightings of rare or mythical species around the world.  But no firm scientific evidence has come forward of any survivors.  It was officially declared extinct in 1982 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Australia now celebrates the anniversary of the last confirmed death on September 7 as National Threatened Species Day.

In the  U.S.—but never Down Under—the thylacine is often confuse with its distant kin, the Tasmanian devil, a smaller carnivorous marsupial that still exists—although extremely endangered—in the wild on the island.  American interest in the Tasmanian devil was stirred mostly the Warner Bros. cartoon character of the same name which pictures it as a voracious, unstoppable force of nature.

In fact the devil, about the size of a small, pudgy dog, is an extremely aggressive predator whose jaw grip may be the most powerful of any carnivore of its size.  It is usually black with white markings on the chest.  Although now protected from hunting, reduced habitat and a recent infestation of devil facial tumor disease may mean that it follows the thylacine into oblivion.

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