B R I G H T O N, Tasmania, Aug. 22, 2000 -- A sign by the small enclosure near the Bonorong Park Wildlife Center entrance says “Tasmanian tiger” but the fabled carnivore is nowhere to be seen.
The last known Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, died in captivity in 1936, but a team of Australian biologists believes the animal’s extinction may simply be a 70-year hiccup. DNA from a Tasmanian tiger has been found and cloning is underway.
Hope for the rebirth of the tiger — not a cat at all but a striped marsupial wolf — lies in the murky depths of a museum specimen jar, where a six-month-old thylacine pup has sat preserved in alcohol since 1866.
Australian Museum director Mike Archer said he knew 15 years ago the specimen held the key to the return of the tiger, but it was not until Dolly the sheep was cloned in Scotland in 1997 that 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 bone marrow tissue were extracted from the preserved pup, and a small team of evolutionary biologists in Sydney began working to unravel the tiger’s genetic code.
Once DNA damage is assessed and repaired, the tiger’s genetic blueprint will be inserted into the egg of a close relative, probably the Tasmanian devil or the numbat, another marsupial, for incubation.
While there have been similar extinct-animal cloning projects elsewhere in the world, the Australia Museum’s project is the first to find good quality DNA from an extinct specimen.
But there is much work to be done and Archer said it could take another 10 to 15 years to clone the tiger.
Experts disagree on the project’s chance of success — with odds ranging from close to zero to 50-50.
Settlers’ Bitter Enemy
Most of what is known about thylacines is from myths and museum exhibits, which sprung up around the world in the 1930s as the tiger headed toward extinction and zoologists clamored for specimens. There is a skeleton in Heidelberg, Germany, and a mounted stuffed tiger in Zurich, Switzerland.
Black-and-white photographs abound, showing a large doglike marsupial with tan fur and black stripes across its lower back and rump. Like the Tasmanian devil and its more distant relative the kangaroo, the female tiger carried its young in a pouch. The animal had a heavy, rigid tail like that of a kangaroo.
The tigers were only seen by white settlers on Tasmania, the island state that appears like a teardrop beneath Australia’s southeast coast, but the predators once roamed the mainland and the island of New Guinea, where they were killed off by wild dogs introduced by man some 6,000 years ago.
On Tasmania, the tiger quickly became the bitter enemy of British settlers. It was blamed for killing sheep and other farm animals and, after a bounty was put on its head in 1888, tiger trapping became a paying occupation.
Protest Over Cloning
In popular imagination, the tiger is plucked from extinction with sightings reported, blurred photographs produced and debate refired about its ability to survive undetected for nearly 70 years, even in the virtually untouched wilderness of Tasmania.
Sightings have even been reported from remote parts of the southern mainland.
A far more emotional debate rages over the plan to reincarnate the tiger through cloning. Archer has crossed angry picket lines at his museum and his work has been denounced by religious groups who accuse the scientists of playing God.
“My response is that people played God when we exterminated the animal in the first place,” Archer said.