03/05/2021

A Look Back At The Time Of The Tasmanian Tiger

17:09 minutes

a book print black and white illustration of two dog or wolf like creatures with stripes along their backs
The Thylacine. Credit: Tasmanian Archives and State Library Heritage Collections/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Last week, conservation biologists on Twitter were all aflutter as rumors circulated that a creature called a “thylacine,” better known as a “Tasmanian tiger,” had been caught on camera in the Tasmanian bush. Thylacines have been considered extinct since the mid 80’s, but there are still those who believe—or hope—they still exist. 

In a video posted to YouTube, Neil Waters, President of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, shared the news of what he thought looked like images of two adult thylacines and a baby.

Unfortunately, this time the animal caught on camera was identified as a pademelon. But at Science Friday, we’ll never pass up an opportunity to celebrate a charismatic creature. Last January, SciFri’s Elah Feder spoke with Neil Waters and Gregory Berns, a psychology professor at Emory University, about the fascinating history of the Tasmanian tiger. 

This segment is part of a conversation from January 2020 with Neil Waters and Gregory Berns, along with Science Friday’s charismatic creature correspondent Elah Feder. 


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Segment Guests

Elah Feder

Elah Feder is a senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produces the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

Gregory Berns

Gregory Berns is a professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Neil Waters

Neil Waters is president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia in Tasmania, Australia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last week, conservation biologists on Twitter were all aflutter at rumors circulating that a creature called a thylacine, better known as a Tasmanian tiger, had been caught on camera in the Tasmanian bush. Thylacines have been considered extinct since the mid-80s, but there are those who believe or hope they still exist. In a video posted to YouTube, Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, shared the news of what he thought to be images of two adult thylacines and a baby.

NEIL WATERS: Baby has stripes, a stiff tail, the hock, the coarse hair. It’s the right color. It’s a quadruped, stocky, and it’s got the right shaped ears. So it puts our thylacine in a much stronger position than it’s been in for the last 30-something years now.

IRA FLATOW: While the animal caught on camera was ultimately identified as a pademelon, we never turn down an opportunity to celebrate a creature as charismatic as the Tasmanian tiger. So today, we revisit our conversation from January 2020 with Neil Waters and Dr. Gregory Berns, along with Science Friday’s Charismatic Creature correspondent Elah Feder.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[BIRD CAW]

[ROAR]

[MEOW]

Joining us again in our Charismatic Creature Corner is our correspondent, Science Friday’s own Elah Feder. Hi, Elah.

ELAH FEDER: Hi, Ira. Yes, I am back, once again, to plead the case that one very special creature is worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title. And by creature, again, I mean almost anything. We count tapeworms. We count bacteria. And by charismatic, I mean a creature that is as worthy of our curiosity and enchantment as a baby panda.

IRA FLATOW: Woo, that’s a pretty high bar you’ve set there.

ELAH FEDER: If you like baby pandas, which, of course, we do. So last month, I made the case that slime molds are charismatic, because I wanted a bit of a challenge. I might have been in over my head. I did get some people on board. Some people are on the slime train, and they left some very nice messages on our VoxPop app. But we also got this.

KATE: This Is Kate from Modesto, California. I’m pretty sure slime molds will never be charismatic, in my opinion.

ELAH FEDER: Mm-hmm.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm.

ELAH FEDER: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Do you have something now better for Kate?

ELAH FEDER: Well, funny you should ask. Kate had something better for Kate. Kate left us another message with this suggestion.

KATE: I’ve always been really interested in Tasmanian tigers. Many people say that they’re extinct, but some people report sightings. Do you have any information on them?

ELAH FEDER: OK, so since Kate is my toughest critic, I decided to give this a shot. First of all, these are not Tasmanian devils, which is what I thought Kate was referring to at first. Tasmanian devils are endangered carnivores that live on the island of Tasmania. We’re talking about Tasmanian tigers. Have you heard of these before?

IRA FLATOW: Who hasn’t?

ELAH FEDER: Well, you’re very learned. I had never heard of these before, but now I’m in deep. OK, so like Kate said, they’re considered officially to be extinct, but people have been reporting sightings, like hundreds of sightings, not just in the island of Tasmania, but in mainland Australia too.

IRA FLATOW: OK, for those of us who have confused Tasmanian devils with Tasmanian tigers, fill us in on what a Tasmanian tiger is.

ELAH FEDER: OK, so the Tasmanian tiger, also known as a thylacine, it actually looks a lot like a dog, but with, like, tiger stripes on its back, except that it’s not a dog. It’s not a tiger. It’s actually a marsupial, like koalas and kangaroos. It actually has a pouch and everything.

IRA FLATOW: I notice we have a photo up on our website at sciencefriday.com/cute.

ELAH FEDER: Yeah, not to bias you or anything. So here’s the deal. The last known Tasmanian tiger died in a zoo in 1936, actually as a result of human neglect, it sounds like. 50 years later, the species was declared extinct, but people keep claiming to see them. And earlier this week, I caught up with one of those people, Neil Waters. He told me about a time 10 years ago when he was walking in Tasmania just before dark.

NEIL WATERS: And I’m walking up this road, this dirt road through the bush, and I can hear this crunching of branches on the feet somewhere in the bush alongside me. I can’t see it, because the bush is so thick, but I can hear it. Every time I stop, it stops, so something’s following me.

ELAH FEDER: Creepy, right?

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

ELAH FEDER: So eventually the creature runs off. But before it does, Neil does catch a glimpse, and apparently it looks kind of like a dog, but not a dog. It’s dark, so– this is important– he does not see the telltale tiger stripes, and he’s not totally sure what he’s seen. But then he starts talking to people, and he learns about all of these other sightings. And then he himself sees one again in 2014. So he’s completely hooked.

IRA FLATOW: He’s hooked. So if he’s a geek like me and you see something, you want to go out and prove that they’re really there.

ELAH FEDER: Exactly. So Neil is dedicating– he’s actually dedicating the next two years of his life to living in the bush and finding definitive proof that these animals are still out there. He walks around with night vision goggles. He goes looking for their scat. He’s even set up a bunch of motion sensitive cameras. And a lot of other people are going to help him sift through those photos like a big citizen science project.

NEIL WATERS: Eventually, someone will probably get the refutable proof. And when that happens, we want scientists to get on board as much as possible. And so that’s why I keep annoying them and saying, hey look, someone saw it again.

ELAH FEDER: Are they annoyed?

NEIL WATERS: Oh, I’ve annoyed quite a few academics over the years, but I’ve got the respect of a few too, so that’s OK. It’s 50-50 at the moment.

ELAH FEDER: So today, we’ve actually brought on another academic to annoy– or to tell us more about the Tasmanian tigers and how you do research on an animal that is nowhere to be found. His name is Gregory Berns. He’s a professor of psychology at Emory University. Welcome to the show.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, welcome, Gregory.

GREGORY BERNS: Hi, Ira. Hi, Elah.

ELAH FEDER: Hey. So Greg, first, Tasmanian tigers, they look like dogs, but are not dogs. What is up with that?

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, so these creatures are fascinating. And as you said, the tigers are actually marsupials. And the only reason that we call them tigers is because they have stripes on their back. And when the original settlers of Tasmania saw them, and those would be the British colonialists, they saw them, and they saw the stripes, they said, oh, these must be some kind of tiger.

And that’s how they got their name. But they are not at all related to dogs. And I got interested in it because of my interest in dogs and how dogs’ brains works. And I was interested to find out what can we figure out about these animals. They look like dogs or coyotes, but they’re not. And so we started studying and looking for their brains.

ELAH FEDER: So this is a case of convergent evolution, right? How do you get two animals that are not remotely related looking so much alike?

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, and to really appreciate this, what this animal is or was, you have to go way back in history. We’re talking 200 million years at least. And to give you an idea, this is the age of the dinosaurs. Mammals didn’t even exist back then. And actually, the first mammals actually laid eggs. And the marsupials later descended from these creatures.

And to give you an idea of how long ago this was, this is when all the continents were jammed together. There’s just one big landmass, Gondwana, Pangaea. And as mammals evolved during this period of time, the continents started to separate. And what ended up happening was that these marsupials, these descendants from the very first mammals who actually laid eggs, they started to give birth live, I mean, but just barely.

The marsupials give birth live, but they’re tiny, tiny little creatures, and they crawl into the pouch. And so these animals started evolving. And as the continents split up, the marsupials were kind of left to their own in what became Australia. And they had no competition from other animals, which we call the placental mammals.

ELAH FEDER: That’s us.

GREGORY BERNS: That’s us. And that’s pretty much all the mammals in the rest of the world. And so you had this line of mammals evolving pretty much on their own in Australia. And you mentioned convergent evolution, and so the Tasmanian tiger, or the thylacine, actually ended up being what we call the apex predator in Australia.

And so what did they prey on? Well, they preyed on the other animals, which would include things like kangaroos, and wallabies, and other little animals. And so we think what happened was that they evolved to kind of look like an animal that preys on other small animals. And so we know those types of animals as things like coyotes, and wolves, and dogs. But in Australia, they were Tasmanian tigers except they were marsupials.

ELAH FEDER: Right.

IRA FLATOW: Wait. If you say they’re marsupials, did they have a pouch like a kangaroo did?

GREGORY BERNS: They did. They had a rear-facing pouch, so not the pouch that everyone knows kangaroos have. They had a rear-facing one, meaning the young looked out backwards.

ELAH FEDER: So zooming forward to the present, they used to be apex predators. But by all– well, not by all accounts, by many accounts, they are now gone. What happened to these animals?

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, so what happened, I mean, we don’t know exactly, but we can kind of piece together this story. It’s like a crime scene, so we’re trying to do this forensically. So we know that thylacines existed on the mainland of Australia at least until probably about 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, because there have been remains found that have been carbon dated to about 4,000 years ago.

And what’s interesting is that period of time there were also people in Australia by then, the Aboriginals. So humans started occupying Australia probably 20,000, 30,000 years ago. And we know that the Aboriginals were aware of the thylacines, because you can find cave art showing them. And so there was this very deep relationship to them.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Wow. Keep going.

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, and so the other thing that was going on in this period of time is this was also the period of the last Ice Age, which means that the oceans were lower. And so Australia, the mainland, was actually connected to Tasmania. Tasmania is an island, and it’s south of Australia, between Australia and Antarctica, so it’s really far south, but they were actually connected by a land bridge.

So the thylacines, as well as the people, were able to move freely. And then as the Ice Age ended, the glaciers melted, the seas rose, and Tasmania was cut off from the mainland. So you had this population of thylacines on the mainland, and then you had a population that was cut off in Tasmania. Now for reasons we’re not totally sure, the mainland thylacines seem to have disappeared.

We don’t know if it’s because of conflict with the humans, maybe they were hunted, maybe their dogs competed with them, or maybe it was just simply climate change, because before that, mainland Australia was much better and more temperate than it is now. So you ended up with just a small population of these creatures on the island of Tasmania. And then the British colonialists arrived, and that was the end of the story, pretty much.

ELAH FEDER: Wait. What happened with the colonial– I mean, just to spell it out, what did the colonialists do?

GREGORY BERNS: Well, the colonialists wanted to turn Tasmania pretty much into farming land, and so they brought their sheep with them. And mysteriously, their sheep started disappearing, and they were killed. And they all thought that this thylacine was the one doing it, and so there was a bounty put out on the thylacines, actually with wild dogs too. And so everyone just started killing off the thylacines, because they were predating on the sheep, although it actually remains debatable how much the thylacines were responsible for that.

ELAH FEDER: Really? So they might have been falsely implicated?

GREGORY BERNS: I believe so.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Last time we talked, Greg– I know you’re a neuroscientist, and last time we talked you told me you’ve been studying dogs a lot, and you actually trained a dog to sit still inside an MRI machine so that you could study its brain. How do you go about finding and studying a dead Tasmanian tiger’s brain?

GREGORY BERNS: Ah, they’re as rare as hen’s teeth. So there’s I don’t want to say a secret order of the thylacine, but there is a very active international community of people interested in all things thylacine. And so one person, a guy named Stephen Sleightholme, has compiled a database of all the known thylacine specimens in the world.

And so I wrote to him and I asked him, I said, do you know, are there any brains left anywhere? Now as you said, I’m interested in brains, and so what I wanted to know is even though a thylacine kind of looks like a dog, I wondered what their brains looked like. And it turns out that there are four known brains left intact in the world. And as luck would have it, the Smithsonian has one of them, so I borrowed it.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking with Elah Feder about the Tasmanian tiger.

ELAH FEDER: And Professor Gregory Berns.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, OK.

ELAH FEDER: So what did you figure out when you took a look at these brains– or this brain?

GREGORY BERNS: Well, we actually know everything about this brain in the sense that we know the animal that it came from. It was completely documented. It came from a tiger that was captured in a town called Launceston in Tasmania in 1902. They brought this tiger over across the Pacific Ocean and then by rail all the way to the National Zoo in Washington.

And then when they got this tiger there, they realized they didn’t have just one tiger, they actually had four, because there were three in her pouch. She was a mother. And unfortunately, she died, and two of the pups survived, and they lived at the National Zoo until they died. And so we know everything about them.

And when I got this brain, it was actually quite shrunken, kind of the size of a walnut. And we knew from the records that it didn’t start out that way. It had actually shrunk to a third of the original size. But we were somehow able to coax enough signal out of it when we put it in the MRI that we could reconstruct many of the pathways that exist in the thylacine’s brain.

ELAH FEDER: And so actually, we’re almost out of time, so I should ask the question that everyone has been wondering about. What do you think, are they still around?

GREGORY BERNS: As much as anyone, I would love for them to be around. And I went to Tasmania to look for them myself, and obviously I didn’t find any. Personally, I don’t think they’re there. I would like to keep up hope for them, but actually, I’ve thought about this a lot. And I think keeping the hope alive actually does a disservice to the other animals that are disappearing as we speak.

IRA FLATOW: There you go. OK.

ELAH FEDER: Wait. Before we go, Ira, so I need your verdict. On a scale of 1 to 10, baby pandas, how charismatic are the Tasmanian– and please, before you answer, bear in mind all that they’ve been through.

IRA FLATOW: OK. How can you not feel that an animal created by committee, it has a pouch like a kangaroo, looks like a dog, and has stripes of a tiger, how could that not be cute? So it’s really, I think it’s really a cute animal It wins.

ELAH FEDER: I need a rating.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll give it an 8 and 1/2.

ELAH FEDER: 8 and 1/2. Greg?

GREGORY BERNS: 11. It’s off the charts. It blows away the baby panda. This is polar bear territory.

ELAH FEDER: OK. Well, thank you very much, Greg, and maybe Ira. And thank you also to Neil Waters, who spoke with me earlier this week.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks, Elah, and thanks to Dr. Gregory Berns, professor of psychology at Emory University, who we spoke with last January, and Neil Waters, who continues his search for the Tasmanian tiger as president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia. We wish him luck.

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