The Tasmanian tiger's fierce reputation was all a myth

Illustration for article titled The Tasmanian tigers fierce reputation was all a myth

Forensic science shows that the reputation of the 'Tasmanian tiger' was much inflated. The creatures used to roam through mainland Australia, but humans drove them to the island of Tasmnania. There, they gained a reputation as hunters of the sheep that were the livelihood of many local farmers. A bounty was put out on the tiger's head, and hunters decimated the population while farmers took over its habitat. But in truth, the poor Tasmanian tiger couldn't have killed a sheep even if it wanted to.

Although called a 'tiger,' it's a marsupial. It looks more like a long-snouted dog than any kind of cat. It has the lean body of a greyhound, with a heavy head and a long, stiff tail. The 'tiger' nickname comes from the stripes over its back haunches.

A protection act was put in place two months before the last known Tasmanian tiger, Ben, died in captivity. The Tasmanian tiger is one of the more pathetic examples of the 'too little, too late' approach to wildlife protection.


Modern scientists have analyzed the jaws of that last tiger, and found that it could not possibly have killed sheep. Predators hunt in certain ways. A Tasmanian tiger, hunting a sheep, would have clamped down on its throat and suffocated the animal, the way lions suffocate their prey. After scanning and analyzing the jaws in the same way they would engineering projects like car frames or skyscrapers, scientists have concluded that the tiger would not have been strong enough to hold on to a thrashing adult sheep and suffocate it to death. It didn't even have the right kind of teeth. Although it might have been able to slash at other animals with its fangs, it didn't have the kind of bone-crushing teeth necessary to take out an adult sheep.

So what did it eat? Researchers compared the tiger's size and jaw composition to other animals around the world, and found that the creatures with its weight and bone structure dined on animals no bigger than opossums. Whatever was killing sheep in Tasmania, it wasn't the tiger. In fact, quite the opposite. The introduction of sheep may have changed its environment enough that its regular food sources dried up. They were wolves in sheep's clothing.

And the Tasmanian tiger was a sheep in wolves' clothing.

Via The BBC.


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WEll, it's a small island. Only room enough for one fierce beast.