B R I G H T O N, Tasmania, Aug. 22, 2000 -- A sign by the small enclosurenear the Bonorong Park Wildlife Center entrance says “Tasmaniantiger” but the fabled carnivore is nowhere to be seen.
The last known Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, died incaptivity in 1936, but a team of Australian biologists believesthe animal’s extinction may simply be a 70-year hiccup. DNA froma Tasmanian tiger has been found and cloning is underway.
Hope for the rebirth of the tiger — not a cat at all but astriped marsupial wolf — lies in the murky depths of a museumspecimen jar, where a six-month-old thylacine pup has satpreserved in alcohol since 1866.
Australian Museum director Mike Archer said he knew 15 yearsago the specimen held the key to the return of the tiger, but itwas not until Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland in 1997that technology caught up with his dream.
“It became a matter of not if, but when,” Archer said.
Incubation in a Relative
In April, small samples of heart, liver, muscle and bonemarrow tissue were extracted from the preserved pup, and a smallteam of evolutionary biologists in Sydney began working tounravel the tiger’s genetic code.
Once DNA damage is assessed and repaired, the tiger’sgenetic blueprint will be inserted into the egg of a closerelative, probably the Tasmanian devil or the numbat, anothermarsupial, for incubation.
While there have been similar extinct-animal cloningprojects elsewhere in the world, the Australia Museum’s projectis the first to find good quality DNA from an extinct specimen.
But there is much work to be done and Archer said it couldtake another 10 to 15 years to clone the tiger.
Experts disagree on the project’s chance of success — withodds ranging from close to zero to 50-50.
Settlers’ Bitter Enemy
Most of what is known about thylacines is from myths andmuseum exhibits, which sprung up around the world in the 1930sas the tiger headed toward extinction and zoologists clamoredfor specimens. There is a skeleton in Heidelberg, Germany, and amounted stuffed tiger in Zurich, Switzerland.
Black-and-white photographs abound, showing a large doglikemarsupial with tan fur and black stripes across its lower backand rump. Like the Tasmanian devil and its more distant relativethe kangaroo, the female tiger carried its young in a pouch. Theanimal had a heavy, rigid tail like that of a kangaroo.
The tigers were only seen by white settlers on Tasmania, theisland state that appears like a teardrop beneath Australia’ssoutheast coast, but the predators once roamed the mainland andthe island of New Guinea, where they were killed off by wilddogs introduced by man some 6,000 years ago.
On Tasmania, the tiger quickly became the bitter enemy ofBritish settlers. It was blamed for killing sheep and other farmanimals and, after a bounty was put on its head in 1888, tigertrapping became a paying occupation.
Protest Over Cloning
In popular imagination, the tiger is plucked from extinctionwith sightings reported, blurred photographs produced and debaterefired about its ability to survive undetected for nearly 70years, even in the virtually untouched wilderness of Tasmania.
Sightings have even been reported from remote parts of thesouthern mainland.
A far more emotional debate rages over the plan toreincarnate the tiger through cloning. Archer has crossed angrypicket lines at his museum and his work has been denounced byreligious groups who accuse the scientists of playing God.
“My response is that people played God when we exterminatedthe animal in the first place,” Archer said.