They were one of Australia’s great biological mysteries, a biscuit-coloured marsupial with a large head, bold dark stripes down its back and a reverse-facing pouch. To newly arrived European settlers, this elusive New World creature was a Tasmanian oddity that inevitably became a source of confusion, contempt and fear. Now, nearly 80 years after the last known individual died in captivity at Hobart Zoo, the thylacine – or Tasmanian tiger – remains one of the least understood of Australia’s native animals.
My PhD research on this species began to lift the veil and reveal the tiger’s true nature. In our laboratory, advanced computer modelling of the Tasmanian tiger’s skull suggests that it was not well-adapted to tackle large prey. Its skull was big but lightly constructed, and more suitable for catching small agile prey such as wallabies and bandicoots.
Specialising in small-to-medium size prey is an unusual trait for a large predator, considering its substantial 30 kg body mass and carnivorous diet. As for its supposed ability to take prey as large as sheep, our findings suggest that its reputation was at best overblown. While there is still much debate about its diet and feeding behaviour, this new insight suggests that its inability to kill large prey may have hastened it on the road to extinction.
Attard MRG, Chamoli U, Ferrara T, Rogers TL, Wroe S (2011) Skull mechanics and implications for feeding behaviour in a large marsupial carnivore guild: the thylacine, Tasmanian devil and spotted-tailed quoll. Journal of Zoology, 285 (4); 292-300. DOI: 10.1111.j.1469-7998.2011.00844.x