Animals & the Environment: The Face of Extinction

by Kacey Barton

Extinction itself has many different faces; from the tiny Passenger Pigeon to the enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex, species have been going extinct since the beginning of multicellular organisms. In fact, it is a sad truth that many animals we know today will be extinct, some before the end of our lifetimes. But for many people, the concept of extinction is a hard one to grasp. How does one visualize what extinction really looks like?

This is where the Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf, enters the equation. Not a tiger, but not a wolf either, thylacines were the largest carnivorous marsupials of our modern time; yes, they even had pouches! The Thylacine Museum describes them as being between 33 and 77 pounds, 52 to 65 inches from the head to the tip of the tail, and about two feet tall at the shoulders. Perhaps they are best known for their stripes that gave them the appearance of a tiger, or their jaws which could open at an astounding 90 degrees. This appearance ultimately led to their extreme population decline.

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 4.05.31 PM.png

Farmers thought that these animals would hunt and kill their sheep. Analysis of the Tasmanian Tiger's skull and body composition revealed that these animals would have hunted much smaller prey; their jaws didn't have the force to kill an animal like a sheep. Coupled with a diminishing size in their prey's population, thylacines were destined for trouble. They were killed for the bounties put on their heads by the Tasmanian government (ironically, the same government who would later advocate for their protection).

Unfortunately for the thylacine, help came too late. It was listed as a Protected Species on July 10th, 1936, just three months before the last Tasmanian tiger in captivity, Benjamin, would pass away. Though there have been reported sightings of the Tasmanian tiger, all we really have left of these unusual animals are a handful of black and white photos and videos, preserved bones and specimens, and marble-eyed taxidermy. To those of us living in modern times, the thylacine is nothing more than an animal behind a screen; we will never see one alive.

When I caught my first glimpse of a thylacine, it was in a photo showcasing it's well-known yawn. At first, I thought it was photoshopped to make the viewer uncomfortable. Then, I saw more photos, and then videos. The more research I did, the more information I found that provided concrete evidence that this was no elaborate prank. This animal was once a living, breathing creature.

This simple fact remains: I will never be able to see this animal in real life. I can't go to a wildlife park or zoo and observe one like I could a zebra, a polar bear, or a shark. As my curiosity grew, I sought more and more information on this thought-to-be-extinct marsupial, which led me to documentaries, museum records, and animal blogs.

The further I researched, the more I realized that this is what may eventually happen to the animals I grew up seeing in zoos and in books, watching on television. Although extinction is a naturally occurring process, humans as a whole have caused a great deal of damage to ecosystems, spiking the rate of extinction. Perhaps the thylacine really has faded into the past – destined to be just a black and white subject in photos and videos of the 20th century, stuffed figures with blank stares, a warning to the future of what extinction looks like.

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 4.05.20 PM.png