The Thylacine: How Soon is too Soon to Declare an Animal Extinct?

The thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf as it is sometimes called) is an interesting cryptozoology case, because it isn’t really a cryptid at all. The thylacine is a well-documented real animal; it was a large (40-60 pounds) carnivorous marsupial that represented the only member of the family Thylacinidae to make it into modern times. It was once widespread throughout Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania. It is thought to have gone extinct on the Australian mainland around 2000 years ago and was thereafter confined to Tasmania. The last living member of the species died in 1936 at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. On the surface, this looks like a number of other unfortunate stories warning us of the dangers of overhunting and habitat destruction. However, sightings of the thylacine are so common and numerous up until the present day that is has been relegated to the realm of cryptozoology. Many believe the animal didn’t really go extinct at all but persists still in small pockets.

So, is it possible a large marsupial could still be living in Tasmania? Or even on the Australian mainland? The short answer is yes. The thylacine, even when it was known to exist, was a nocturnal and elusive creature that likely persisted at low numbers. Tasmania still has a significant amount of good habitat that a small remnant population of animals could survive in. 84 years since official extinction is a tiny drop in the bucket as far as geologic time goes, and even a very tiny population could probably survive for that long. The coelacanth was discovered alive a full 65 million years after it was thought to be extinct. But there are far less extreme examples of animals being discovered again after they were believed to be extinct. The ivory billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct in the late 1800s, but one was found in 2004. Scientists are still not prepared to declare it extinct, even though recent searches have turned up nothing. Wild dogs in New Guinea were rediscovered after 50 years in a small mountain region. The Australian night parrot hadn’t been seen since 1912 until a car hit one in 1990. These examples show just how difficult it is to guarantee that an animal is truly gone. And when the thylacine was declared extinct in the early 1900s, we did not have the strict requirements we have today. It was likely declared extinct on the basis of a cessation in sightings, and not any kind of exhaustive search.

One has only to do a quick search to find dozens of reports of thylacine sightings in recent years. And these are not just by independent people. In 2019 CNN reported that the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment had released a report on 8 thylacine sightings in the last three years. Footprints have been found, as well as (admittedly blurry) trail camera footage of what might be a thylacine. There are many locals in Tasmania who are positive the species is not extinct. So, what does this all add up to? Is the Tasmanian tiger still lurking around Tasmania? I believe it is very possible. At the very least, we jumped the gun in 1936 by declaring it extinct. It is very likely it survived longer, if not up until the present day. Just because we haven’t seen an animal in awhile (or ever as was the case of the coelacanth) does not mean that it is gone. There is a real danger in declaring an animal extinct before we are sure, it can mean that conservation of the species and habitat is cut off before it should be. For my part, I’m not quite ready to give up on the thylacine. I hope we find some still alive, and if we do, I hope we can keep them that way.

Published by cryptodaisy

I'm an anthropologist who has always been fascinated with cryptids! With a bachelor's degree in anthropology and ecology/evolutionary biology, a master's in primatology, and a doctorate in anthrozoology in the works I decided it was time to share my theories on cryptids! I have an open mind, but a healthy dose of skepticism!

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