Tasmanian tiger genome offers clues to its extinction

By Ewen Callaway

The last known thylacine, a marsupial predator that once ranged from New Guinea to Tasmania, died on 7 September 1936 in a zoo in Hobart, Australia. The species’ complete genome, reported on 11 December in Nature Ecology and Evolution, offers clues to its decline and its uncanny resemblance to members of the distantly related dog family1.

“They were this bizarre and singular species. There was nothing else like them in the world at the time,” says Charles Feigin, an evolutionary developmental biologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who was involved in the sequencing effort. “They look just like a dog or wolf, but they’re a marsupial.”

People have been nothing but bad news for the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger. The species’ range throughout Australasia shrivelled as early hunter-gatherers expanded across the region, and the introduction by humans of the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) to Australia several thousand years ago reduced numbers still further, leaving an isolated thylacine population clinging on only in Tasmania. European colonists in the nineteenth century saw the predators as a threat to their sheep, and paid a bounty of £1 per carcass. Thylacines were on the cusp of extinction in the wild when the rewards were ended in 1909, leading zoos to pay handsomely for the last few individuals.

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