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Back From The Dead? Reported Sightings Fuel Hope For Return Of Tasmanian Tigers

Mar 30, 2017
Originally published on March 31, 2017 5:40 am

It has been more than eight decades since the last known Tasmanian tiger died. In that time, the marsupial has become the stuff of textbook sketches and yellowing photographs, little more than a memory aging into oblivion.

But Thylacinus cynocephalus may still be out there.

Recent "plausible sightings" have challenged the accepted wisdom that the animal has gone extinct — and have inspired researchers at Australia's James Cook University to commence a quest to find it themselves.

Let's clarify one thing right away: this animal is no feline. In fact, it's a marsupial — in the same family as kangaroos — but its face looks a lot like a dog.

"It's a dog with a pouch," the university's Sandra Abell tells All Things Considered. She's one of the people leading the search in Queensland, Australia.

"It has a very dog-like face," she says, "but its back and the tail in particular looks a little bit kangaroo-like. Its hind quarters are very distinctive — so they have stripes on the back end and that large tail, very interesting looking."

The team is planning to place dozens of cameras in the area the elusive animal has reportedly been spotted, in hopes of catching it on tape.

The researchers also plan to use the cameras to collect more general information about declining populations of mammals in Australia. Abell says that north Queensland has recently experienced "small mammal crashes," and the tapes might help explain why.

Once common in Australia and Tasmania, the last known Tasmanian tiger died in 1936 at Tasmania's Hobart Zoo, according to the Australian government.

That was more than 100 years after a prominent land company in Tasmania offered a bounty to settlers to kill the tigers, which were hunting newly introduced sheep, according to the Tasmanian government. It later introduced its own bounties and paid more than 2,000 of them between 1888 and 1909.

In 1986, the species was declared "extinct by international standards," the Tasmanian government adds.

Still, reported sightings have persisted ever since the death of the Hobart Zoo animal.

There's even a group — the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia — that tracks reports and is dedicated to the idea that the Tasmanian tiger still exists.

Some claims appear more credible than others. Australia's ABC reports that researchers were particularly intrigued by a recent account given by former tour operator Brian Hobbs about a camping trip in 1983:

" 'I hopped out of bed and put her [the dog] on a short leash, grabbed a spotlight and started to look around the camp towards the ravine area where I'd been walking the dog previously,' he said.

" 'All of a sudden I had these sets of red eyes looking at me and there was a male, a female and two pups – I got within 20 metres of them.' ...

" 'These animals, I've never seen anything like them before in my life,' he said.

" 'They were dog-shaped – I had a shepherd with me so I certainly know what dogs are about – and in the spotlight I could see they were tan in color and they had stripes on their sides."

Abell rebuffs comparisons to searches for rumored animals like the Yeti or the Loch Ness monster.

"This isn't a mythical animal, this is something that is real. We have real fossils and we have images and video footage of this real animal," she said. "But the probability that it will be discovered is very low, so I'm not persuaded that they're out there. For me, I'll need some hard data to be able to satisfy my curiosity."

She adds: "I really hope they're out there. I think it would be an amazing thing to discover."

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The last Tasmanian tiger on earth died in a zoo more than 80 years ago. At least that's what scientists thought. Now there's reason to believe the species might not be extinct after all. Australian researchers are planning an expedition to investigate what they call plausible sightings of Tasmanian tigers in far-northern Queensland.

Sandra Abell of James Cook University is one of the people leading the search, and she joins us from Cairns in Australia. Welcome.

SANDRA ABELL: Thank you, Ari. It's nice to be here.

SHAPIRO: First tell us what exactly this animal is. What's its scientific name? It looks more like a dog than a tiger.

ABELL: Yeah, so it's thylacine. And it's basically a marsupial dog, kind of like a kangaroo dog, if you like (laughter). It's a dog with a pouch.

SHAPIRO: So it carries its young in a pouch.

ABELL: It does. And the female obviously has the pouch, but in this case, the male also has a small pouch. And it has a very dog-like face, the features. But it's backend - the tail, in particular - looks a little bit kangaroo-like. Its hind quarters are very distinctive. So they have stripes on the backend and that large tail. They're very interesting looking.

SHAPIRO: If these animals really are alive 80-plus years after they were thought to have gone extinct, how unprecedented would that be?

ABELL: I can't even imagine what it really would mean. It would be absolutely an amazing rediscovery. But it isn't unheard of. For example, there was a dog New Guinea recently discovered, and it was thought to be extinct. So it's not entirely impossible.

SHAPIRO: Now, your team's plan is to place dozens of camera traps to hopefully document the existence of this animal. Given that nobody has studied one in the wild for generations, how do you know what kind of environment or habitat to place these cameras in? How do you know where you're likely to find them?

ABELL: Well, I'm basing the location on a cluster of sightings. People have come forward, and I'm basically mapping where those records are. But for me, it's very important to maximize the scientific data that we get out of this as well. So there are a number of other reasons that we will be going camera trapping as well.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying this is a general wildlife survey that hopes to pick up information about the Tasmanian tiger. It is not an expedition purely to document the hopeful existence of the species.

ABELL: No, certainly not to purely document that. You know, we're bating for presidents, so if they're there, then it's likely that we'll see them.

SHAPIRO: Deep in your heart of hearts, do you believe these animals really are alive today, or do you think this is going to be like the Loch Ness monster or Sasquatch or other myths that people want to believe and ultimately are false?

ABELL: Well, this isn't a mythical animal. This is something that is real. We have real fossils. And we have images and video footage of this real animal. So it isn't like finding the yeti or the Loch Ness monster, no.

But the probability that it will be discovered is very low. So I'm not persuaded that they are out there. For me, obviously I will need some hard data to be able to, you know, satisfy my curiosity. And of course I really hope that they're out there. I think it would be an amazing thing to discover.

SHAPIRO: That's Sandra Abell, senior research fellow at the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University, speaking with us via Skype from Cairns, Australia. Thank you, and good luck with the search.

ABELL: Thanks so much, Ari.

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