Australian wildlife scientists have re-opened the cryptic case of the Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial carnivore that resembled a striped coyote and which was last seen alive more than 70 years ago.
Scientists think chances are slim that Thylacinus cynocephalus still roams remote areas of Tasmania, the large island just south of Australia, but they can't help but turn over every possible leaf for evidence.
The last wild Tasmanian tiger was killed by a farmer around 1930, and the last captive died in 1936 at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania's capital. Fifty years later, the species was declared extinct.
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The extinction marked the end of the family Thylacinidae, and of the world's largest marsupial carnivore. The Tasmanian tiger weighed about 65 pounds, had a nose-to-tail length of six feet and had several vertical stripes running across its lower back and tail.
Despite the official extinction, rumored sightings of the creature have continued to emerge from Tasmania's temperate forests.
Zoologist Jeremy Austin of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA and his colleagues are examining DNA from animal droppings, or scats, found in Tasmania in the late 1950s and 1960s, which have been preserved in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Eric Guiler, a thylacine expert who found the scats, told Austin the droppings probably came from a Tasmanian tiger rather than a dog or two common related marsupial carnivores — the well-known wolverine-like Tasmanian devil and the cat-like spotted quoll.
"If we find thylacine DNA from the 1950s scats it will be significant," Austin said. "This would prove that either the thylacine produced the scat or a [Tasmanian] devil ate a thylacine and dropped the scat. Either way, that is proof that the thylacine was there at the time."
If they were to find evidence the Tasmanian tiger was still extant in the 1950s, that would mean the beast was able to stay hidden from humans for at least 20 or 30 years.
"If they could survive this long with no real physical proof, then it does add a little more hope to the possibility that they could survive another 50 years without ever being caught, killed [or] hit by a car," Austin told LiveScience. "This chance is of course not great, but the glimmer of hope is ever so slightly brighter."
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