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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
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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