Tasmanian Tiger or Marsupial Wolf? New Insights on the Extinct Thylacine

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Thylacine in a zoo, c. 1930

Both its nicknames reflect the fact that the thylacine was an awesome creature — one that makes the human race kick itself for helping to drive such animals to extinction — but new research suggests that the “Tasmanian tiger”/“marsupial wolf” was indeed more tiger-like than wolfish.

(More on TIME.com: Saving the Tasmanian Devils)

The last captive thylacinus cynocephalus (“dog-headed pouched one”) died in Tasmania’s Hobart Zoo in 1936. Brown University researchers, who have published their new paper in the journal Biology Letters, compared the bones of the extinct Australian carnivore to those of other meat-eaters, including pumas, wolves, and Tasmanian devils. The analysis provided the scientists with a better understanding of how the thylacine hunted its prey. Apparently, it’s all in the elbow, which shows that the animal was more of an ambush predator — like cats — than one that chased its food — like wolves, hunting in packs. Australian Geographic explains:

 the thylacine elbow joint allowed it to twist its arm in different directions, making it easier to wrestle and kill prey at close range or in a surprise attack. The arms of dog-like species, such as dingoes or wolves, are far less flexible and are usually fixed in a palm-down position, making it easier to run long distances to wear down a target.

The BBC notes there are exceptions: cheetahs run after their prey; foxes, a dog-like species, ambush. As for the thylacine, “I don’t think there’s anything like it around today,” Christine Janis, the paper’s co-author, tells the BBC. “It’s sort of like a cat-like fox.”


We may no longer get to see the dog-headed striped marsupial roam the planet (there have been reported sightings since 1936, though none confirmed) but that’s all the more reason to save the wolves, tigers, Tasmanian devils and other species that, however precariously, still do exist.