The ongoing mystery of the Tasmanian tiger

Every year, new sightings of this emblematic species are reported. Could they really be out there?
Karl Gruber
Karl Gruber
Freelance Science Writer
The ongoing mystery of the Tasmanian tiger
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons | Harriet Morgan

Whether you’re looking for a Tasmanian tiger, thylacine, Tasmanian wolf, marsupial wolf or even ‘Old Stripey‘, Thylacinus cynocephalus is truly a modern-day mystery.

No matter what you call it, the Tasmanian tiger is not a mythical creature. It was alive and well some 3000 years ago, until a heady combination of climate change, humans and dogs drove it to extinction.

These wolf-sized marsupials were carnivorous, carried their young in a pouch and had tiger-like stripes on their backs. Their jaws could produce an amazing 120° gape. And the origins of this species go back millions of years.

A black and white photo of two Tasmanian tigers, a male and a female, taken in 1902; they have distinctive stripey markings along their back and tail
View Larger

A pair of Thylacines, a male and female, at the Washington D.C. National Zoo in 1902

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons | Smithsonian Institution
A pair of Thylacines, a male and female, at the Washington D.C. National Zoo in 1902

Thylacine 101

According to the fossil record, T. cynocephalus lived in mainland Australia and New Guinea about 2.5 million years ago and was not alone in its family tree. Over the past 20 million years, other species related to thylacines have roamed Australia and New Guinea.

“The genus Thylacinus as a whole has probably been around for about 20 million years or so,” says Dr Douglass Rovinsky, a Melbourne-based biologist who specialises in thylacine evolution.

“The earliest known, Thylacinus macknessi, was recovered from deposits up in Riversleigh that are probably 16–19 million years old, give or take a bit,” he adds.

“Over that period of time, there were at least four other species that came and went. Between 3–8 million years ago, we had three species of Thylacinus, and it’s possible (though totally unknown!) that they might have overlapped in time.”

Footage from the early 1900s of a Tasmanian tiger

Compilation footage of a thylacine, shot at Hobart Zoo

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons | 1911 footage by “Mr. Williamson”, 1933 footage by David Fleay. Authors of the 1928 footage are unknown.
Compilation footage of a thylacine, shot at Hobart Zoo

Unfortunately, fossils of these thylacine relatives are rare. Not much is known about where they lived or for how long. What the fossil record does show is that, at some point, most of these thylacine species disappeared.

Only one survived.

“At the very latest, after 2.6 million years ago, we do not see any other species except for the thylacine T. cynocephalus – the others had gone extinct by then. And certainly, by the time that humans arrived, there was only the thylacine,” Douglass says.

The surviving species, the Tasmanian tiger, lived in mainland New Guinea, Australia and Tasmania. Evidence for their existence comes from a handful of confirmed fossils as well as Indigenous Australian rock paintings depicting the enigmatic animal. One desiccated carcass, found in 1966 in a cave west of Eucla on the Nullarbor Plain, suggested that the animal was once found in WA – more than 4000 years ago.

The last known living specimen died tragically in 1936 at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart. His name was Benjamin.

Wanting to believe

Over the past decades, there have been multiple sightings of thylacines, with no evidence but fervent belief.

“It’s a little bit like The X-Files – people want to be believe and this sometimes clouds judgement. I also see this a lot with the number of enquiries I get about general palaeontology from the public,” says Dr Gilbert Price, a Senior Lecturer in Palaeontology at The University of Queensland.

“People often find stuff and identify it as a dinosaur bone or egg or something equally exciting and bring it to me for confirmation – 99% of the time it’s just a rock that doesn’t look even remotely like the object they think it is.”

Two skeletons of a wolf-type animal saved side-by-side
View Larger

Tasmanian Tiger Skeletons on display at Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Hobart

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons | Megan Jerrard
Tasmanian Tiger Skeletons on display at Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Hobart

The Thylacine Research Unit currently hosts a list some 20 thylacine sightings from across Australia. Few include pictures or videos of the animal.

In the past few years, some of these sightings have made it into the media. In 2017, a seasoned thylacine hunter released a video from a reported Tasmanian tiger sighting in Hobart. It is much too far away to show any detail. “I don’t think it’s a thylacine … I know it’s a thylacine,” he declared.

In June 2018, a Sydney local claimed to have captured a thylacine with his home surveillance camera. Then, in 2019, a farmer from Victoria claimed to have photographed a thylacine near Clifton Springs. Neither offer a whole lot of detail.

The truth is out there – maybe

From a paleontological perspective, the fossil record shows no evidence of thylacines in mainland Australia for thousands of years. Experts think they disappeared in part due to human activity and in part due to climate change.

“They seem to drop out of the fossil record in mainland Australia and New Guinea when dogs were introduced and human population densities increased. This may also have coincided with a period of more intense El Niño activity. This happened 3–4 thousand years ago,” Gilbert says.

So could the Tasmanian tiger still be out there, somewhere? Maybe, but it is highly unlikely.

“For the thylacine to still be extant, you’d ideally want an ecosystem with few or no humans around and ideally no or few dogs. This could be remote areas of Tasmania or highlands of New Guinea. But even then, I wouldn’t hold my breath,” says Gilbert.

“It would be extraordinary for a land animal the size of a thylacine to still be out there undetected.”

Karl Gruber
About the author
Karl Gruber
Karl is an Evolutionary Biologist and a science communicator, passionate about the beauty behind science.
View articles
Karl is an Evolutionary Biologist and a science communicator, passionate about the beauty behind science.
View articles


We've got chemistry, let's take it to the next level!

Get the latest WA science news delivered to your inbox, every fortnight.


Creative Commons Logo

Republishing our content

We want our stories to be shared and seen by as many people as possible.

Therefore, unless it says otherwise, copyright on the stories on Particle belongs to Scitech and they are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

This allows you to republish our articles online or in print for free. You just need to credit us and link to us, and you can’t edit our material or sell it separately.

Using the ‘republish’ button on our website is the easiest way to meet our guidelines.


You cannot edit the article.

When republishing, you have to credit our authors, ideally in the byline. You have to credit Particle with a link back to the original publication on Particle.

If you’re republishing online, you must use our pageview counter, link to us and include links from our story. Our page view counter is a small pixel-ping (invisible to the eye) that allows us to know when our content is republished. It’s a condition of our guidelines that you include our counter. If you use the ‘republish’ then you’ll capture our page counter.

If you’re republishing in print, please email us to let us so we know about it (we get very proud to see our work republished) and you must include the Particle logo next to the credits. Download logo here.

If you wish to republish all our stories, please contact us directly to discuss this opportunity.


Most of the images used on Particle are copyright of the photographer who made them.

It is your responsibility to confirm that you’re licensed to republish images in our articles.


All Particle videos can be accessed through YouTube under the Standard YouTube Licence.

The Standard YouTube licence

  1. This licence is ‘All Rights Reserved’, granting provisions for YouTube to display the content, and YouTube’s visitors to stream the content. This means that the content may be streamed from YouTube but specifically forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution, except where otherwise licensed. When uploading your content to YouTube it will automatically use the Standard YouTube licence. You can check this by clicking on Advanced Settings and looking at the dropdown box ‘License and rights ownership’.
  2. When a user is uploading a video he has license options that he can choose from. The first option is “standard YouTube License” which means that you grant the broadcasting rights to YouTube. This essentially means that your video can only be accessed from YouTube for watching purpose and cannot be reproduced or distributed in any other form without your consent.


For more information about using our content, email us:

Copy this HTML into your CMS
Press Ctrl+C to copy