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Scientists Plan to Resurrect Resurrect the Tasmanian Tiger After Nearly 100 Years

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The evolution and destruction of animal species are parts of the circle of life. Throughout history, over four billion species have evolved and 99 percent of those are now extinct. What’s most shocking, however, is that over the last 500 years, a minimum of 900 species have gone extinct, with many more classified as at risk of the same fate.

Scientists may have a way of partially reversing these extinctions, and they intend to use ancient DNA and artificial reproduction to bring back one animal that’s been gone for nearly 100 years.

The Tasmanian tiger has been extinct for nearly 100 years

Two Tasmanian tigers together in a cage

Tasmanian tigers at Hobart Zoo in Tasmania, 1933. (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

When Europeans first settled in Australia, there were roughly 5,000 thylacines on Tasmania. Better known as Tasmanian tigers, their population quickly diminished due to destruction of habitat, the introduction of disease and overhunting. Over 2,000 years ago, the coyote-sized animal was located in Papua New Guinea and Australia, but, eventually, the only ones left were in Tasmania.

The settlers had a problem with Tasmanian tigers killing livestock, even if the number was largely exaggerated. In response, the government issued bounties to be paid out to those who killed the animals, a very successful system. It was so successful, in fact, that the species went extinct on September 7, 1936, when Benjamin, the last Tasmanian tiger, died at Beaumaris Zoo.

You found it where?

Two scientists looking at the preserved remains of a Tasmanian tiger

Preserved body of a Tasmanian tiger. (Photo Credit: CHRIS LANE / Fairfax Media / Getty Images)

After Benjamin died, his remains were sent to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, never to be seen again. Not knowing where they’d put the body, the gallery believed it had been thrown out.

According to Robert Paddle, who authored a book on the species’ extinction, “For years, many museum curators and researchers searched for its remains without success, as no thylacine material dating from 1936 had been recorded.”

Yet the reason why no remains could be found in the museum catalog was because they were simply never cataloged. After stumbling across an unpublished taxidermist’s report for the material, the museum delved deeper into their collections and soon found Benjamin located in a cupboard in the institution’s education department.

Apparently the hide, which had been properly preserved when Benjamin’s body was received, had once been sent out with a traveling exhibit. At the time, they didn’t know it was the last thylacine they were sharing with the public.

Rediscovering the remains also confirms Benjamin was actually female, despite many claims stating otherwise.

A second chance for the Tasmanian tiger

Four Tasmanian tigers huddled together in an enclosure

Tasmanian Tigers at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, 1910. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The resurrection of the Tasmanian tiger is being led by Professor Andrew Pask from the University of Melbourne, who heads the Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research Lab. The process is complicated, involving the complete reconstruction of the species’ genome. It will then be compared to that of the dunnart, its closest relative.

Once researchers find the differences between them, they’ll be able to alter the genome of the dunnart to essentially make it the same as that of the Tasmanian tiger. Dunnarts will then be used as surrogates to help bring their ancestor back to life.

Tasmanian tigers are especially good candidates for the de-extinction process, Pask said. The animal died out relatively recently, quality DNA samples are available and parts of its natural habitat are still in existence. He outlined the goal of the project, which is “to restore these species to the wild, where they played absolutely essential roles in the ecosystem. So our ultimate hope is that you would be seeing them in the Tasmanian bushland again one day.”

What about the woolly mammoth?

Two men standing around woolly mammoth remains

Excavation of frozen woolly mammoth remains near the Berezovka River in Russia, 1902. (Photo Credit: Sovfoto / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

It’s not just the Tasmanian tiger that might be given another chance, but the woolly mammoth as well. The scientists involved in the Tasmanian tiger project are working in coordination with a group using the same technology to try and bring back the mammoth. The company, started by a genetics professor at Harvard University, received $15 million in funding for the project.

Given how long ago the mammoth went extinct, scientists aren’t intending to perfectly replicate the species, but rather create a similar animal by editing mammoth DNA into the genome of the Asian elephant, a close relative. They want to create a species that’s similar enough that it has the same traits and functions, primarily so they can play a role in combating climate change.

Both the recreation of the woolly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger are being undertaken as efforts to help with regional ecosystems and problems associated with climate change. The animals each served important functions in their ecosystems. Thylacines could help restore balance to Tasmania’s remaining forests by eliminating sick or weak animals and keeping the populations of overabundant herbivores down.

More from us: Footage of the Last Tasmanian Tiger Ever Seen Alive

Wooly mammoths used to scrape away layers of snow, allowing cold air to reach the soil and maintain the permafrost. The mammoths’ disappearance meant that snow accumulated and warmed the permafrost, releasing greenhouse gases. Some scientists are hopeful that returning them could reverse this trend.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.