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10 Wild Facts About the (Now-Extinct) Tasmanian Tiger

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Almost exactly 79 years ago, on September 7, 1936, the world’s last captive thylacine died at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. (The last record of a thylacine being killed in the wild happened six years prior.) Today, we know more about this poster species for extinction than we do about many living animals.

1. THEIR RESEMBLANCE TO DOGS WAS TOTALLY SUPERFICIAL.

The thylacine got the nickname the “Tasmanian tiger” or the “Tasmanian wolf” because it looked and acted like a strange combination of the two animals. As marsupials, however, they were only distantly related to felines and canines. These very different carnivores independently evolved similar features and even (more or less) assumed the same environmental niche. This phenomenon—when near-identical traits appear in two unrelated organisms—is known as "convergent evolution" and takes place all the time. 

2. THEY WERE MAINLY NOCTURNAL.

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Thylacines were known to sunbathe at midday, but they predominantly hunted at night. Their prey included kangaroos, wallabies, small mammals, and birds. According to some eyewitness accounts, hungry thylacines would trot after their targets over a large distance, slowly tiring them out. Then, without warning, they’d break into a full run and grab their victims. However, modern research on thylacine skeletons has indicated that they were built as ambush predators rather than pursuit predators.

3. THEIR JAWS COULD OPEN TO A 120-DEGREE ANGLE.

After this thylacine was filmed in 1933, it wheeled around and bit the cameraman—zoologist David Fleay—right on the buttocks. Fortunately, the scientist walked away uninjured, if a little embarrassed. By taking one for the team, Fleay was able to capture the marsupial's threatening gesture, the yawn. When faced with danger, thylacines would respond by widening their maws and showing off an impressive gape.

4. LIKE KANGAROOS, THYLACINES WOULD SOMETIMES HOP AROUND ON TWO LEGS.

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Walking and sprinting were a thylacine’s real forte, but some footage does show them rearing up on their hind legs for brief periods of time. A few naturalists also reported seeing them engage in some short-distance bouncing.

5. DINGOES ARE OFTEN BLAMED FOR THEIR DOWNFALL.

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For more than 40,000 years, thylacines roamed both Tasmania and mainland Australia. But around 3000 or 4000 years ago, early settlers introduced dingoes to the land down under. Descended from Asian wolves, the newcomers were better equipped for lengthy runs than their marsupial counterparts. Because of this, experts have traditionally blamed them for out-competing mainland thylacines—eventually killing them off altogether. It’s also argued that thylacines only managed to hang on in Tasmania because these canines never reached the island.

But do dingoes really deserve all the blame? Perhaps not. Recent research suggests that climate change, as well as the people who first introduced dingoes, played an even bigger role in decimating Australia’s thylacine population. Also, because dingoes chase their food across open terrain and the “Tasmanian tigers” were ambush hunters, these two species might not have gone after the same types of prey. Long term coexistence could have been a reality—without human interference, that is. Still …

6. IT'S POSSIBLE THAT THYLACINES WOULD HAVE DIED OUT ANYWAY.

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Genetic diversity is the lifeblood of evolution. When an entire population shares too many traits, the shallow gene pool makes bouncing back from fatal diseases or other catastrophes very difficult. In 2012, a team of biologists compared preserved samples from 14 Tasmanian thylacines. The researchers found that in a section of DNA normally very different between individuals, the specimens were 99.5% identical. (One expert noted that “the Tasmanian tiger only averages one DNA difference between individuals, whereas the dog, for example has about five to six differences between individuals.") If left untouched by man, it’s likely that the species still wouldn’t have survived much longer than it did.

7. THEY'RE DEPICTED IN ANCIENT ROCK ART.

At some point during the past 40,000 years, an Aboriginal artist left this painting on a rock face in northern Australia. The site also includes illustrations of fish, kangaroos, and human figures

8. TASMANIA'S GOVERNMENT DECIDED TO START PROTECTING THEM 59 DAYS BEFORE THE LAST ONE PERISHED.

His name was Benjamin and, sadly, he (or possibly “she”) didn’t die of natural causes. After every other thylacine known to man had passed away, Benjamin lingered on inside the Beaumaris Zoo. Then, one cold September night, the creature was accidentally locked out of its shelter. Soon enough, he succumbed to the frigid temperatures and this once-proud species went out with a whisper.

Just a couple months earlier, on July 10, 1936, Tasmania had officially listed the thylacine as a protected species. Had this move come a century earlier, it might have done some good. Benjamin was killed by an act of human carelessness. His ancestors, on the other hand, were deliberately hunted down.

Believing that thylacines killed sheep, the private Van Diemens Land Company fought back, offering a bounty of 5 shillings for a male’s carcass and 7 for a female’s. The Tasmanian government later followed suit by directly paying its own residents to slaughter the animals. Before this state-sponsored hunt was disbanded in 1909, taxpayer money had financed the deaths of 2,184 thylacines.

9. TWO ARE PROMINENTLY DISPLAYED ON THE TASMANIAN COAT OF ARMS.

Approved in 1917, the design also includes a shield that pays homage to the country’s traditional commodities: hops, apples, wheat, and sheep. Look closely and you’ll notice that the red lion’s holding a shovel and pick as a tribute to Tasmania’s miners. Below it all is the Latin motto “ubertas et fidelitas,” or “fidelity and faithfulness.”

10. TED TURNER ONCE OFFERED A $100,000 REWARD TO ANYONE WHO COULD PROVE THEY'RE STILL AT LARGE.

Thylacines are often mentioned in the same breath as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster. Since Benjamin’s abrupt demise, more than 3000 unconfirmed “sightings” of live specimens have been reported. In 1983, CNN’s founding father raised the stakes by promising $100,000 in exchange for proof of the thylacine’s survival (he later revoked the offer).

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Animals
20 Black-and-White Facts About Penguins
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To celebrate World Penguin Day (which is today, April 25), here are a few fun facts about these adorable tuxedoed birds.

1. All 17 species of penguins are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. Emperor Penguins are the tallest species, standing nearly 4 feet tall. The smallest is the Little Blue Penguin, which is only about 16 inches.

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3. The fastest species is the Gentoo Penguin, which can reach swimming speeds up to 22 mph.

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4. A penguin's striking coloring is a matter of camouflage; from above, its black back blends into the murky depths of the ocean. From below, its white belly is hidden against the bright surface.

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5. Fossils place the earliest penguin relative at some 60 million years ago, meaning an ancestor of the birds we see today survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

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6. Penguins ingest a lot of seawater while hunting for fish, but a special gland behind their eyes—the supraorbital gland—filters out the saltwater from their blood stream. Penguins excrete it through their beaks, or by sneezing.

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7. Unlike most birds—which lose and replace a few feathers at a time—penguins molt all at once, spending two or three weeks land-bound as they undergo what is called the catastrophic molt.

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8. All but two species of penguins breed in large colonies of up to a thousand birds.

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9. It varies by species, but many penguins will mate with the same member of the opposite sex season after season.

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10. Similarly, most species are also loyal to their exact nesting site, often returning to the same rookery in which they were born.

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11. Some species create nests for their eggs out of pebbles and loose feathers. Emperor Penguins are an exception: They incubate a single egg each breeding season on the top of their feet. Under a loose fold of skin is a featherless area with a concentration of blood vessels that keeps the egg warm.

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12. In some species, it is the male penguin which incubates the eggs while females leave to hunt for weeks at a time. Because of this, pudgy males—with enough fat storage to survive weeks without eating—are most desirable.

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13. Penguin parents—both male and female—care for their young for several months until the chicks are strong enough to hunt for food on their own.

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14. If a female Emperor Penguin's baby dies, she will often "kidnap" an unrelated chick.

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15. Despite their lack of visible ears, penguins have excellent hearing and rely on distinct calls to identify their mates when returning to the crowded breeding grounds.

16. The first published account of penguins comes from Antonio Pigafetta, who was aboard Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in 1520. They spotted the animals near what was probably Punta Tombo in Argentina. (He called them "strange geese.")

17. An earlier, anonymous diary entry from Vasco da Gama's 1497 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope makes mention of flightless birds as large as ducks.

18. Because they aren't used to danger from animals on solid ground, wild penguins exhibit no particular fear of human tourists.

19. Unlike most sea mammals—which rely on blubber to stay warm—penguins survive because their feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the skin that serves as insulation, especially when they start generating muscular heat by swimming around.

20. In the 16th century, the word penguin actually referred to great auks (scientific name: Pinguinus impennis), a now-extinct species that inhabited the seas around eastern Canada. When explorers traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, they saw black and white birds that resembled auks, and called them penguins.

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6 Myths About Animals, Debunked
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It’s easy to think we understand animals: They’re present in every part of our culture, from the movies we watch to the clichés we use. But the way a species functions in the wild is often worlds apart from a stereotype or cartoon. This gulf between misconceptions and reality is the theme of Lucy Cooke’s new book, The Truth About Animals.

"We have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own existence, and that trips us up and obscures the truth,” Cooke, a zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, tells Mental Floss. “I think it's time we rebrand the animal kingdom according to facts and not sentimentality.”

As Cooke examines in her book, the real world is one in which pandas are virile lovers and sloths are master survivalists. These are just a few of the myths that were debunked in The Truth About Animals.

1. PANDAS HAVE LOW SEX DRIVES.

Pandas have long been blamed for their own precarious position in the animal kingdom. The species is in danger, some people claim, because pandas are reluctant to or just plain bad at copulating. If only they would get off their furry behinds and get it on, there would be more of them.

In The Truth About Animals, Cooke debunks this modern myth. Pandas have been living in the wild for 18 million years—long before humans swooped in to act as their savior—and that wouldn’t be the case without healthy sex habits. It’s true that pandas are difficult to breed in captivity, and the several failed attempts of zoos to produce a baby panda throughout the 20th century is likely what led to this stereotype. But the bears are much more responsive to members of the opposite sex in the wild. The female chooses who she mates with, moaning from high in a bamboo tree while several males on the ground compete for her attention. Once the bears have paired off, they can have sex over 40 times in one afternoon.

2. SLOTHS ARE LAZY.

Cooke was inspired to write her book by sloths, which she describes to Mental Floss as “highly successful, highly evolved” creatures. Not everyone agrees: More than perhaps any other animal, sloths have become synonymous with laziness and sluggishness, and today they’re held up as an example of evolutionary failure.

The reality is that sloths are much more impressive than their appearance suggests. They’ve been around since 64 million years ago—earlier than wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers—and they have their slow and steady nature to thank for their success. Sloths have a remarkably slow digestive system and a low-calorie diet, so they expend as little energy as possible, not out of laziness, but out of survival instinct. A sloth is awake for more than half the day, and when necessary it can scramble up a tree at speeds approaching 1 mph. It spends most of its day in a still, seemingly trancelike state, but it isn’t wasting its potential: It’s conserving energy so it can maintain its dominant spot in the evolutionary tree.

3. PENGUINS ARE LOYAL LOVERS.

Emperor penguins, the most famous of the bird group, are known for splitting parenting duties between mated pairs, with the father incubating the egg while the mother gathers food for her family. This has led some to praise penguins as the reflection of ideal, moral family dynamics in the animal kingdom, but these people should probably find a different analog. Though the parents of any given chick may raise their offspring together, penguins aren’t monogamous: 85 percent of emperor penguins find a new partner from one breeding season to the next. Penguins are also some of the only animals known to exchange goods for sex. Adélie penguins need rocks to build up their nests during warmer months when meltwater threatens their eggs. With no parenting duties to distract them, bachelor penguins end up collecting more stones than they need, so some females will sometimes trade a one-off sex session for one of their pebbles.

4. VULTURES STALK DYING PREY.

Watch enough survival movies and you’re bound to see a shot of a hungry vulture trailing behind the starving protagonist, waiting for them to lie down and die. The myth that vultures stalk their prey while it’s still alive and have the power to predict death is a persistent one, but that doesn’t make it accurate. The scavengers have no interest in living animals and will only seek out meat from dead and decaying corpses. Rather than reaper-like premonitions of mortality, turkey vultures and greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures use their noses to locate their meals. They join kiwis and kakapos on the small list of birds with highly-developed olfactory glands. Without a strong sense of smell, other New World vultures and all Old World vultures primarily rely on sight to find food. Some New World vultures like black vultures have adopted a different strategy: They'll follow turkey vultures to their prey, taking advantage of their sensitive noses.

5. ALL BATS ARE RABID BLOOD-SUCKERS.

Bats may be the animals most closely associated with the horror genre. They crave blood, so the myth goes, and though a bat latched onto your neck won’t be able to suck you dry, it will likely infect you with a nasty case of rabies.

According to Cooke, there are many problems with the statement above. Bats are poor stand-ins for their fictional vampire counterparts; only three species of bats drink blood—the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat—while most prefer fruit or insects. After climbing onto its prey, the vampire bat locates where the blood is flowing with the heat sensor on its nose, and then, using its sharp front teeth like shears, it cuts away any hair that might be blocking the skin. Rather than biting down and sucking like Dracula, the bat creates a small incision and laps up blood from the open wound. They can recognize an individual animal's breathing patterns and return to feed on it the following night, taking advantage of the reliable blood source.

Bats are rarely rabid, with just .05 percent of them carrying the disease—less than dogs or raccoons. The image of a bat getting tangled in your hair also has no basis in reality: Their sophisticated echolocation system signals them to turn long before they have a chance to collide with your head.

6. FEMALE HYENAS HAVE PENISES.

Hyena genitalia has been baffling scientists for centuries. Member of both sexes appear to have a penis, while in females there’s no external vagina to be found. Scientists originally thought that hyenas must be hermaphrodites, but the true explanation is even more unusual. Though it’s often referred to as a pseudo-penis, female hyena genitalia doesn’t produce sperm, technically making it a nearly 8-inch-long clitoris. This appendage is also saddled with all the same duties as a conventional female organ, including giving birth to hyena pups.

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