Despite regular reports it still roams the Tasmanian wilds, the thylacine is almost certainly extinct, but according to new scientific modelling, it’s possible its final days were more recent than previously believed.
The carnivorous marsupial was last seen about a century ago after decades of post-colonial hunting drove it to extinction. Numerous unverified sightings have been reported for decades since the death of the last captive specimen at Beaumaris Zoo in 1936.
Fascination with the mysterious, wolf-like animal has persisted. One biotech company is attempting to reconstruct a live specimen from DNA remnants, while the pelt of the last known specimen was recently rediscovered in the depths of the zoo’s education department.
While the last confirmed wild trapping occurred in the thirties, it’s unlikely that individual was the last member of the species. Now researchers have compiled every sighting record to determine when the final thylacine passed away and they say it could have been around a couple of decades ago.
A record study of the thylacine, but the devil is in the detail
To undertake the study, the researchers combined more than 1,200 sighting records from newspaper reports, scientific research, government files, private and museum collections and eyewitness accounts.
Each record was encoded with information on its provenance, date and location of sighting and assessed for quality.
These records were then mapped across the Tasmanian landmass to suggest a most likely extinction date sometime around the turn of the century – some 70 years after the last known sighting.
But that extinction date shifts, depending on the data.
When considering around 500 ‘high-quality’ records – usually examples of physical specimens and reliable sources from rangers and trappers – their research suggests thylacines persisted well into the seventies, and potentially longer, with a probable extinction date sometime in the late eighties.
When considering all available records (including those of low reliability) there is a remote chance the thylacine persisted into the 2000s, likely confined to a pocket of the heavily forested south-western pocket of Tasmania.
When only physical specimens were considered, the date was pushed back to 1941.
One thing the models agrees on is the general pattern of thylacine loss over time from the south-eastern corner of Tasmania near the state capital Hobart, to the forested areas of the island’s south-west.
“While the Thylacine is unlikely to persist to the present, the true extinction year likely occurred much later than the commonly held date of 1936,” say the researchers.
While it’s unlikely the famed marsupial persists, the suggestion that a rare animal can persist well beyond its final sighting might aid efforts to plot and identify other species of uncertain status.