The Tasmanian Tiger’s Comeback Tour, Powered By Science

Scientists estimate that approximately 900 species have gone extinct in the last five centuries alone, to say nothing of the thousands or millions that vanished from life in the billions of years before that.

Conventional wisdom states that once an animal has gone extinct, it’s gone forever. However, a team from the University of Melbourne hopes to change all that, with their new project aiming to bring the Tasmanian Tiger back to life.

An Obscure Icon

“Benjamin” was the last known living thylacine, passing away at Hobart Zoo in 1936. Credit: public domain

The Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine as it is also known, was last seen in 1936, when a male named Benjamin passed away in captivity in Hobart Zoo. In the wild, it’s suspected that the species first began nearing extinction in most of its habitat around 2,000 years ago, with human factors and changes in climate primarily cited as causal factors.

Wild examples of the carnivorous marsupial were last reported the Australian mainland in the 1830s. Habitat destruction, hunting, and disease finally conspired to wipe the thylacine from the wild on the island of Tasmania, with the last example killed by a farmer in 1930.

With its unique “long stripy dog” appearance, thylacines measured on the order of 180 cm long from nose to tail, and 58 cm high. Indeed, those stripes are what scored the animal the name “Tasmanian Tiger” even though it is in no way related to any kind of feline animal.

Sightings of thylacines are still reported now and then by eager enthusiasts, but none have ever been confirmed in the last 86 years of looking. Whether it’s the animal’s obscurity, it’s curious look, or simply the fact that people want what they can’t have, the thylacine continues to captivate the hearts and minds of wildlife enthusiasts in Australia and beyond.

A Candidate for De-Extinction

Farmer Will Batty killed the last known wild thylacine, pictured here, in 1930. Credit: public domain

As loved as it is, there are other reasons that the thylacine is a prime candidate for de-extinction efforts. Thanks to a baby that was collected in the early 20th century, scientists were later able to sequence the animal’s full genome. It’s a significant achievement; having only a partial genome has frustrated many other de-extinction efforts like the work to bring back the woolly mammoth.

Armed with this data and with the benefit of a $5 million donation, the University of Melbourne is establishing a lab for the explicit purpose of resurrecting the Tasmanian tiger and pursuing de-extinction and marsupial conservation research. The lap will be known as the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab, or TIGRR for short.

The lab’s overarching goal will be to resurrect the thylacine, but it will also pursue research into stem cell technology, as well as gene editing and the use of surrogates in order to push forward the field of de-extinction. The hope is that the lab’s work may help prevent some marsupial species from falling victim to extinction in the way the Tasmanian tiger did.

The Tasmanian devil is a potential candidate for surrogacy of a lab-developed thylacine embryo. This marsupial population faces its own challenges, particularly due to a contagious facial tumor disease. Credit: JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA 3.0

Initial efforts will investigate the possibility of using marsupial stem cells to create a viable thylacine embryo. This embryo would then be transplanted into a surrogate mother. Prime candidates for surrogacy are the dunnart or the Tasmanian devil, considered close enough to the thylacine to make a pregnancy viable.

Being a marsupial species, the thylacine has several benefits going for it when it comes to pregnancy. Once an embryo has been created and transferred to the uterus of a surrogate species, it will undergo gestation. However, unlike (placental) mammals, marsupial species tend to a have much shorter and less complex gestation, with the tiny young then transferring to the mother’s pouch for further development. This period of pouch life and suckling can readily be replaced with bottle feeding in the lab, further simplifying the early development of a young, newborn thylacine.

It all sounds simple on paper, and indeed, the team at the University of Melbourne have set a clear path forward for what they hope to achieve. However, it will take years of work to develop techniques in stem cell cultivation, embryo creation, and uteral implantation to actually get to the point of birthing a thylacine. Regardless, similar work has been done before in cloning non-extinct animals, so it’s not outside the realms of possibility.

Of course, cloning a thylacine from century-old genetic material is one thing, and establishing a thriving population is another. With only one genome to work with, a lack of genetic diversity could make starting a self-sustaining colony of thylacines difficult or impossible. There are few, if any, living marsupial relatives close enough to interbreed a thylacine with to kickstart a fresh population, sadly.

Regardless, the money is now there, and the scientists are on the job, so it could be a remarkably short period from now until we see the first thylacine born on Earth in a century.

52 thoughts on “The Tasmanian Tiger’s Comeback Tour, Powered By Science

  1. I’m curious to see what will happen if/when they succeed. Like, if the thylacine’s mating habits included juggling and riding a unicycle will this genetically modified version seek out things to juggle and a unicycle? Or will it take up poetry? Do we even know what the natural mating habits are (I’m sure we do but you never know). It’ll be neat to see what happens.

  2. Isn’t there a word missing somewhere in here? “However, unlike mammals, marsupial species tend to a have much shorter and less complex, with the tiny young then transferring to the mother’s pouch for further development.”

    1. “However, unlike PLACENTAL mammals, marsupial species tend to HAVE A much shorter and less complex GESTATION PERIOD, with the tiny young then transferring to the mother’s pouch for further development.”

      That sentence had a multiple issues…

  3. “However, unlike mammals, marsupial species tend to a have much shorter and less complex [pregnancy], with the tiny young then…” There might be a missing in that sentence.

    I look forward to following this venture! This seems to me to be in the region of futuristic science where I don’t yet get zombie-apocalypse-inducing vibes, yet still pushing the boundaries of what my lizard brain thinks of as the human domain.

  4. My first thought was “it might be a bit late for CPR”

    My second was “more, POWER Igor!”

    I wish them luck in beginning to reverse the extinction event we are witnessing,
    and I look forward to seeing a thylacine in other than black and white.

  5. I don’t think it’s really extinct. there are several reported sightings every year. tasmania is about twice the size of new york state with a population of less than 600,000, over half of which live in the two larges cities. large areas of the island are uninhabited by humans.

    1. But until somebody gets positive evidence to the contrary it’s reasonable to assume they are extinct. Also if they do happen to resurrect the species I assume they would release them on Tasmania and if there are extant Tigers living there it will only improve the gene pool of both groups.

  6. While I imagine mainstream opinion might be more in favor of avoiding extinction of living species than de-extinction of this one, such projects do have some popular appeal, and apparently to the tune of $5 million. (Not a ton of money in academia, especially if it’s Australian dollars, but enough for a few folks on the task.) I would think that the scientists involved can do mostly transferable/reusable research under the heading off this project. So I guess tentative hooray?

    (And yeah that contagious tumor in the devils is a real tragedy and challenge…)

    1. Since the climate has never been in stasis. I am presuming there were climate change events during that timeframe that effected them. Kinda like the mammoth stuff that likely predated human interaction with mammoths.

      1. I think dingos, which were probably introduced by Humans, also had something to do with it, I bet they both occupy the same ecological niche and placental mammals can be quite nasty competition against marsupials.

  7. That’s exciting. I’ve been interested in these beautiful and mysterious creatures ever since I watched a documentary about them entitled – Howling III: the Marsupials.
    (Yes it’s real. Yes you need to watch it if you haven’t)

    1. If you had the genome of a raptor I don’t think you would have to hack anything to get someone to try to use it. Just show up at the lab and hand it over. It’s getting it that’s the trick.

  8. What good is a woolly mammoth or this oddity? On the other hand the extinct giant moa birds were known to taste good which is one reason that they went extinct. Were are talking about drumsticks a yard-meter long! Drumstick steaks. They have 6 complete sets of DNA and rhea birds can lay revived eggs. I’d like to plan on a big barbecue. Yum! If you like wings though you will have to do changes to their DNA. No wings.

  9. “Scientists estimate that approximately 900 species have gone extinct in the last five centuries alone, to say nothing of the thousands or millions that vanished from life in the billions of years before that.”

    I think this sentence is missing something… 900 species over 5 centuries is a tiny fraction of reality. Most people estimate in the low hundreds of species per *day*.

    I think you may be talking about mammals alone, for which 900 species in 500 years sounds more reasonable…

    1. Weasels on both sides.

      They have been conflating species with populations for 30 years now. To inflate the number and prevent anything from being built anywhere.

      They caught (advocates/government employees) planting samples to stop development when it was realized the samples found were from museums. And they would have gotten away with it, if wasn’t for those meddling DNA tests.

      Not unlike old Yeti or bigfoot samples that are sculped from bear remains. Cheaters gonna cheat.

      Bob says: ‘celebrate your Yeti heritage!’

      1. Like the polar bear. Decades ago there were 5,000, today there are only 30,000 left. There’s one population that has much lower numbers than in other places, where they’re becoming a nuisance. But the people in charge of deciding what’s endangered refuse to take it off their list and constantly lie about the “endangered” polar bears.

  10. Why would the Tasmanian Devil be chosen as a surrogate for the Tasmanian Tiger embrio, when the Numbat is the closest living relative to the Tasmanian Tiger? Is it because your readers are ignorant of the existence of the lesser known Numbat. #Numbat for cartoon series…..

  11. I like the illustration, is that supposed to be “Santa’s Little Thylacine”? Anyway I want to see them try to bring back the Passenger Pigeon, and since I’ve seen somebody growing a chicken to birth outside an egg (in a dish) on YouTube I think that it might not be that hard, just insert the zygote into a sterile egg in a dish and bake until done.

    1. One of the arguments against trying to bring back the passenger pigeon is that it might only breed successfully in large flocks. Having to create a group of hundreds of individuals all alive at the same time could be a significant barrier to success.

      1. It might only breed in large flocks, but we’re not sure, and that presupposes breeding in the wild, the first ones would of course be hand raised. And besides this is a new field of science, so we still have a lot to learn.

    1. I didn’t catch it the first time around, but laughed when I realized that that cartoon DNA chain is a ref to the Jurassic Park intro/educational film they show in the theater at the park. (OG 1993 Jurassic Park)

    1. The key word in World Wildlife Fund is Fund. They really love the money. So much so that they sued the World Wrestling Federation over the letters WWF, and somehow won. Forced the WWF to change to World Wrestling Entertainment, claiming people were “confused” and that they were “forced” to always have to spell out their full name and use their panda bear logo.

      Noooo, it’s trademark law that requires them to use their full name and logo often enough to not lose those trademarks. Also, they haven’t sued some other companies and organizations whose initials are WWF.

    2. I’ve read in regards to the loss of the Thylacine that it left a void in the Tasmanian ecological landscape, as it was the only large native predator on the island. Devils are mostly scavengers.

      Some believe that if the Thylacine were returned it would go a long way to killing off feral cat and dog numbers (which are scarily high), as the Thylacine would likely become their natural predator and kill the young, this in turn would help bird, lizard, snake and bilby populations.

    3. First, I believe the made-up statistics, on that site, actually say that the number is somewhere between 200 and 100,000 and that is a big enough margin of error to drive a planet through!
      Second, if you think that tampering with nature is a good thing, I would invite you to research man’s biggest ecological boondoggle in my lifetime: The Salton Sea.

  12. I know am gonna get a lot off hate mail but the simple thing is the people Tasmania will have to learn to live with the shame that they killed off the Tasmanian tigers, their trying to hide that shame by false claims that they have seen one.
    its not the fault of your generation but your parents and grandparents their the ones who should feel guilty and ashamed not todays generation who unfortunately have to live with that dark and inexcusable past.
    this beautiful creature was wipe out by ignorance and greed.
    those scientists wont bring them back .
    its wishful thinking
    try and save todays animals so they dont suffer the same feat otherwise it will be your shame.

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