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Thursday, November 17, 2005 

Video time capsule

I first ran across the thylacine (aka "Tasmanian tiger" or "Tasmanian wolf") when I was preparing to teach a summer course on vertebrate zoology for a local Catholic college during grad school. While I'd had a decent amount of organismal biology and zoology as a college undergrad, I was a bit rusty from a few years of only studying organisms lacking nuclei, so I was looking for a quick refresher as well as some interesting topics for final paper assignments for the course. Just announced around that time was a "breakthrough" in the attempt to clone the thylacine, so I introduced that to the class in a discussion of geographic isolation, and had a nice discussion of both the molecular techniques and the ethics of a Jurassic Park-type scenario.

For those of you unfamiliar with this animal, it was, like many Australian mammals, a strange critter. Though it looks like a dog or hyena (hence the nickname "wolf"), it's a marsupial. Thousands of years ago, they were main predators in Australia, until dingoes pushed them out. They stuck around longer in Tasmania, until settlers in the 1800s worked to seal their fate. The Tasmanian government began to offer a bounty for the thylacine in 1888; at least 2,268 were brought in for the reward between 1888 and 1914. Infectious disease seems to have decimated them further; an outbreak thought to be distemper (likely brought by introduced dogs) occurred in wild thylacines in 1910.

In 1936, the Tasmanian government reversed their stance and granted the thylacine protected status, but it was too little, too late: the thylacine was already gone. The last captive thylacine died in captivity that same year. The last recorded kill of a wild thylacine was recorded in 1930, and the last one captured live was caught in 1933, but died the same year in the Hobart zoo. Since then, the animal has become somewhat of a legend. A sighting was reported in western Australia in the 1980s, but has not been confirmed, and it is assumed to be extinct. However, as mentioned above, attempts have been made in recent years to clone the animal. At least 3 different animals are known to be preserved in ethanol in collections in Australia, and DNA has been extracted. Currently, it seems that the cloning project has been put on hold, but genome wiz Craig Venter has offered assistance and possible collaboration--so this may gain more steam in the future. Only time will tell if we'll ever see a live thylacine.

Anyhoo, the point of all this background was to introduce some video clips of captive thylacines I recently ran across: found here.
They don't have any sound, but they're still a haunting reminder of what we've lost, possibly forever.

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About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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