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New Study Suggests Thylacine Didn’t Go Extinct Until at Least 2000

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While thylacine watchers say the number of sightings in South Australia alone is up to four in 2021, a new study gives hope to those who believe the conventional wisdom that the species went extinct in 1936 but hope that conventional wisdom is wrong. The study speculates that the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) may have been around until the early 2000s and leaves the door open for a live one to walk through today.

“So since Dec 30th 2020, there has been no less than 4 Thylacine sightings in SA, 2 on the same day around 300km apart from each other, one right outside Flinders University, another in the South-east of SA and one near the Barossa Valley, plus the one in the Adelaide hills. Not a bad start to the year for an animal that has been extinct for over 2000+ years on the mainland….”

Earlier this week, Neil Waters, the founder and head of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia (TAGOA), announced the exciting sighting of what the witness believed to be a mother and two pups in the Adelaide hills. Waters later described all of them on the group’s Facebook page, generating positive comments and hopes some clear photos and videos will emerge soon. But … didn’t it go extinct, with the last thylacine dying in the Hobart Zoo in 1936?

Thylacine at the London Zoo

“Contrary to expectations, the inferred extinction window is wide and relatively recent, spanning from the 1980s to the present day, with extinction most likely in the late 1990s or early 2000s. While improbable, these aggregate data and modelling suggest some chance of ongoing persistence in the remote wilderness of the island.”

A group of thylacine researchers from Australia, Tasmania and other countries submitted a paper, “Extinction of the Thylacine,” to the preprint biology site bioRxiv describing modeling they performed on a database of 1,237 unique sighting records of thylacines since 1910. The sightings after 1936 included 26 reported deaths and 16 reported captures (but not verified), 271 sightings by ‘experts’ (e.g., former trappers, bushmen, scientists or officials) and 698 by the general public. It’s important to note in light of the recent sightings in South Australia that all of those studied were in Tasmania.

When plotted on a timeline, the data shows no sightings in 1921, 2008 and 2013; spikes in 1937 and 1970 following legal protection and a well-publicized expedition, respectively; a steady annual number of reports from 1940–1999 and a substantial drop from 2000–present. While the lack of confirmed physical evidence after 1936 points to extinction, the authors note that the sheer number of ‘expert’ and other sightings up to 2000 strongly points to non-extinction up to that year. The data on sightings by geographic location shows them dropping by the early 1960s across most of the southern half of the state, with longer-term “persistence” until the late 1990s along a band stretching across the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, from Lake Pedder in the south-center across to the western edge of the central highlands and up to the Tarkine in the north-west.

And their conclusion?

“We show, using a unique and robust spatio-temporal mapping and modelling approach, underpinned by the world’s first sightings database (from 1910-present day), that the Thylacine likely persisted until the late 20th century, with some possibility of ongoing survival.”

Should the search for the Tasmanian tiger stop on the mainland — where other research shows it went extinct 2,000 years ago but there’s still a few sightings in SA – and increase in Tasmania? We certainly don’t want ‘amateur’ thylacine hunters tripping over each other trying to find it, but more scientific research – perhaps even better satellite and drone observations – would certainly be helpful.

Not the result we have in mind

Despite the enthusiasm of researchers who recently used DNA to show a concurrent evolution between wolves and Tasmanian wolves which would help in de-extincting the species, most people would prefer finding a live one … preferably many live ones we can all apologize to and then leave alone.

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