A Vanished Species: Thylacinus cynocephalus

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Catalog no. AMNH 35866. Photo: © AMNH/J. Beckett

Thylacinus cynocephalus goes by many common names: Tasmanian wolf, Tasmanian tiger, zebra dog, pouched wolf, and marsupial dog, among others. A quick look at the animal explains the confusion. Shaped like a dog, striped like a tiger or zebra, pouched like an opossum, and reputed to behave like a wolf, it became many different creatures in the popular imagination.

But the thylacine is, or was, a unique species. Now considered extinct, the thylacine was a carnivorous marsupial that lived in Tasmania and fed primarily on kangaroos, wallabies, small mammals, and birds. Nocturnal and shy, it was seldom seen by humans. Nonetheless, beginning in the 19th century, settlers believed the animals threatened their livestock and, spurred on by a bounty offered by the government, hunted them relentlessly. Despite numerous unconfirmed reports of sightings in recent decades, no definitive sightings have occurred since the 1930s.

To learn more about this vanished species and how it relates to other species, researchers study old eye-witness reports, films, photos, zoo archives, and other material. But the most reliable record for scientific investigation is preserved specimens: skins, bones, teeth, tissues preserved in alcohol, and mounted figures, all of which provide data and clues to physiology, behavior, and genetic makeup. The Museum, which has one of the largest and most diverse collections of marsupial specimens in the world, has 12 thylacine specimens, one of which is featured in the Museum’s exhibition Extreme Mammals: The Biggest, Smallest, and Most Amazing Mammals of All Time, now on view at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

All told, the Museum’s marsupial collection includes some 17,000 specimens, including rare and extinct species like the thylacine. It is extraordinary in its size, breadth, and geographic coverage, and was assembled over more than a century by numerous expeditions to South and Central America, Australia, and New Guinea.

For more about the Mammalogy Collection, visit research.amnh.org.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer issue of Rotunda, the Members’ magazine.