One of the saddest parts of studying biology is to see the complete disappearance of a species—especially to witness the death of the very last individual. Science knows of no way to bring back an extinct species, and so its passing represents an irretrievable loss.
Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of the last thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus, also known as the “Tasmanian wolf”), a marsupial that once inhabited New Guinea, Australia, and Tasmania. “Benjamin,” a captive individual on display in the zoo at Hobart, Tasmania, died on September 7, 1936. Below I’ve put a 42-second video clip of Benjamin in his cage (despite his name, this individual may have been female).
Thylacines were top predators, and a superb example of evolutionary convergence, resembling, in both behavior and appearance, the wild placental dogs to which it’s only distantly related. As a marsupial, it did of course have a pouch in which it sequestered its young.
Note how doglike Benjamin looks. The stripes on the species’ hindparts also gave it the name “Tasmanian tiger.” Thylacines died off on the Australian mainland about 2,000 years ago (see the cave painting below), probably from hunting and competititon with introduced dingos, but survived in Tasmania until the 1930s. There its extinction was promoted by its reputation as a killer of chickens and sheep, and there were bounties on its hide.
The website The Thylacine Museum will tell you everything you want to know about this animal.
There are only seven movie clips of living thylacines (from London and Hobart zoos), and you can find them all at this link. The longest is only 54 seconds, so you can watch them all. Note that at the beginning of this clip, the beast shows the species’ wide mouth gape: it could open its maw about 120 degrees!
Wikipedia gives a good account of not only the species, but of the death of Benjamin:
The last captive thylacine, later referred to as “Benjamin” (although its sex has never been confirmed) was captured in 1933 by Elias Churchill and sent to the Hobart Zoo where it lived for three years. Frank Darby, who claimed to have been a keeper at Hobart Zoo, suggested “Benjamin” as having been the animal’s pet name in a newspaper article of May 1968. However, no documentation exists to suggest that it ever had a pet name, and Alison Reid (de facto curator at the zoo) and Michael Sharland (publicist for the zoo) denied that Frank Darby had ever worked at the zoo or that the name Benjamin was ever used for the animal. Darby also appears to be the source for the claim that the last thylacine was a male; photographic evidence suggests it was female This thylacine died on 7 September 1936. It is believed to have died as the result of neglect—locked out of its sheltered sleeping quarters, it was exposed to a rare occurrence of extreme Tasmanian weather: extreme heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night.[This thylacine features in the last known motion picture footage of a living specimen: 62 seconds of black-and-white footage showing it pacing backwards and forwards in its enclosure in a clip taken in 1933 by naturalist David Fleay. National Threatened Species Day has been held annually since 1996 on 7 September in Australia, to commemorate the death of the last officially recorded thylacine.
It’s sad to think that Benjamin didn’t know she was the last of her kind, even if she was lonely.
There is almost an “Elvis cult” around the thylacine, with many believing that it still remain alive. There have been sporadic reports, and photos, and even one movie of thylacines on mainland Australia; for a summary and pictures go here. I’m not convinced that they’re genuine (how could they survive at such low density?), but it’s pretty to think that they may still be with us.
A cave painting of a thylacine from the Pilbara in Australia. See more paintings here.