Back from extinction: Resurrecting the Tasmanian tiger
Hunted and exterminated, the last thylacine is thought to have died in the 1930s. Meet the scientists who want to bring it back.
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Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, with a notebook and pen in his hand, Andrew Pask bounds through the gothic sandstone arches of Melbourne University’s historic quadrangle on a chilly October afternoon.
He could pass for a student, but in fact, the 48-year-old is a professor in the bioscience department who is promising to lead a team of scientists to do what humans have never done – bring an extinct creature back to life.
A collection of Star Wars paraphernalia, and miniature skulls and dinosaur replicas are meticulously arranged on the base of his desktop computer, but front and centre is the subject of his ambitious project – its stripes and wide-yawning jaw, unmistakably a thylacine, or, as it is more commonly known, a Tasmanian tiger.
“I think there is nothing that approaches the incredibleness of the Tasmanian tiger,” he enthuses as he moves his mouse across a pad covered in a 1930s black-and-white image of one of the last living thylacines.
“The fact that it’s an incredibly amazing, beautiful marsupial that was brutally hunted by humans to extinction, we actually owe it to those species to apply the time and the money to return them back to the ecosystem and restore some of these wrongs that we’ve done in the past,” he says.
A grim tale
Native to Australia and Papua New Guinea, the thylacine disappeared from the mainland and its northern neighbour more than 2,000 years ago. Some blame its demise on the arrival of the dingo, another apex predator, but others argue that is debatable.
There is no debate, however, when it comes to what happened to the 5,000 or so thylacines that once inhabited Australia’s southern isle, Tasmania.
Their fate was sealed with the arrival of 19th-century British colonists. Committing what many believe was genocide against the Indigenous population, the colonists also turned their guns on the state’s top predator.
Nick Mooney, a biologist, conservationist and arguably Tasmania’s foremost thylacine expert, shakes his head as he utters solemnly, “It’s a grim tale.”
Perched on a rock under a tree on the edge of an inlet leading to Bass Strait, a treacherous body of water that has separated the island from the mainland for the past 14,000 years, he explains how it was colonists who dubbed the seemingly shy, nocturnal marsupial, the Tasmanian tiger.
“A lot of English people were familiar with tigers from India and so because the thylacine had stripes, or bands, they called it the tiger.”
According to Mooney, that carried with it “this European predator hysteria. Everything with big teeth or claws was non grata.”
“As the colony settled in and sheep arrived, a conflict started immediately. At one stage there was a claim that more sheep were killed [by thylacines] every year than were actually sheep in Tasmania. It was just classic tabloid rubbish,” he says, seething with condemnation. “So the bounty was installed and that really was the death knell for the thylacine.”
Private bounties on the Tasmanian tiger were introduced as early as the 1830s, with the government weighing in at the end of the 19th century. And if they escaped being killed for money, many became casualties of traps intended for other animals.
Hunted to extinction
The last wild thylacine is believed to have been shot in 1930 by Wilfred Batty, a farmer who hailed from Yorkshire. He spotted it prowling near a shed housing chickens on his farm at Mawbanna, in the northwest of the state. The fertile farming region was prime thylacine habitat.
Batty’s grandson, Bevan Anderson, still lives in the area. Sitting in a neighbour’s lounge, he rests in his lap a now famous photograph of his grandfather – the smiling farmer holding his gun as he crouches between the fatally injured thylacine and his terrified dog.
“When Pop shot the tiger, they sent out a reporter from Stanley and they had a photographer go out as well,” Anderson explains as he grapples with his grandfather’s notoriety.
“I’m not sure whether that’s something to be proud of or something to be ashamed of,” he says, moving uneasily in his seat. “But in those days, I guess his livelihood was being threatened. I think they were stealing his chooks. So, he had to protect them. If he had known it was the last one, I don’t reckon he probably would have done it.
“I believe that,” he adds as his eyes drift back to the photo.
A victim of cruel neglect
In the basement of Hobart Museum’s storage facility, recently retired senior curator and thylacine specialist, Kathryn Medlock, pushes back the compactus. Fluorescent lights flicker on, revealing shelves packed with labelled boxes. Carefully removing one, she takes out a skull of a thylacine.
“This skull here is interesting because it’s got a bullet hole in it,” she says, pointing to the gaping hole in the forehead.
She explains how the museum paid money for thylacine specimens. According to her catalogue, one mounted thylacine was captured by a trapper in 1928 and sold to the zoo for 25 pounds. When it died, the museum bought it from the zoo for 5 pounds.
“It’s strange because the museum was involved in collecting, but at the same time, three museum directors really pushed for thylacine reserves, legal protection, limits on hunting and trapping to try and prevent them going extinct. So, it’s a bit contrary in some ways,” she shrugs, bewildered.
The Tasmanian government finally declared the thylacine a protected species in July 1936, but it was too late. The last known living thylacine died a couple of months later in the now-abandoned Beaumaris Zoo in the centre of Hobart. Deplorably, she was the victim of cruel neglect.
The only moving footage in existence of the thylacine is of those held in captivity. The penultimate surviving thylacine was filmed soon after he was captured and brought to the Hobart zoo. The grainy black and white video shows the striking male in distress, pacing back and forth along the wire fence of its small, stark, cement cage. The images are haunting but have ensured the species is never forgotten. The animal is now an icon of human-induced extinctions. Australia’s annual national threatened species day is held on the anniversary of the last one’s death.
Despite the International Union for Conservation of Nature declaring the thylacine extinct in 1982, cohorts of enthusiasts in Tasmania and far beyond its shores share the belief the exotic creature still roams the wilderness.
“There’s been thousands of sighting reports. I’ve met many people who firmly believe that they’ve seen thylacines. They’re absolutely convincing. Whether they did or not is a completely different issue”, the 69-year-old conservationist Mooney says, chatting away as he drives through dense bushland to a site from which he led a 12-month search for the thylacine in the same year it was pronounced extinct.
In 1982, one of his fellow senior government parks and wildlife service officers, Hans Naarding, was observing birds in the area and at the end of the day decided to bunker down in his 4WD for the night. Recalling Naarding’s account, Mooney says, “He woke up, flicked the spotlight around and bingo! There’s this thylacine standing three or four metres away from his vehicle.”
Mooney’s rigorous search found no evidence of a thylacine, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he disbelieves Naarding or that he thinks the thylacine couldn’t have survived for decades beyond 1936.
“I think it’s the most extraordinary bit of human arrogance to think we caught or killed the last one,” he says emphatically.
The spirit lives on
Indelibly etched in the island state’s identity, the Tasmanian tiger, or, Tassie tiger for short, adorns vehicle number plates and is a tourist drawcard, with small towns trading on it.
A “Welcome to tiger country” sign greets visitors arriving in the farming hamlet of Mole Creek where the last official thylacine search took place in 1984. A model of one, emblazoned by spotlights at night, stands on the roof of the local hotel, its “world-famous Tassie tiger bar” serving everything from Tassie tiger pies and burgers to Tassie tiger beers. Step inside and Tassie tiger kitsch abounds. Two walls are dedicated to newspaper clippings about sightings and searches.
Not surprisingly, the bar owner Doug Westbrook is a true believer. He says, “I believe I saw one. My wife will say she definitely saw one.”
And some patrons even come along with video evidence from cameras they have attached to trees in the bush. But like the countless number of similar videos posted on social media, the evidence is “inconclusive” as far as experts like Mooney are concerned – the images too blurred, too abstract or simply of other animals.
“There’s been lots of false alarms and lots of want-to-be evidence, lots of wishful thinking. But I’ve seen nothing that I think is evidence of a thylacine,” Mooney says. But the scientist in him won’t let him completely rule out the possibility it’s still lurking around. “Some colleagues of mine get quite cross with me because I won’t say it’s extinct … In fact, science doesn’t ever say that. All it can really say is it’s very unlikely. And I would agree it’s very unlikely there are any thylacines there, but you can’t say they’re not.”
Like Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, the Tasmanian tiger has not only bewitched ordinary folk, but writers and movie producers, some of whom appear to have literally lost the plot over it. The 2011 film, The Hunter, is a case in point. Starring Willem Dafoe as a mercenary sent to Tasmania to hunt and capture all surviving thylacines, its premise that the animal’s DNA holds the secret code for a dangerous weapon borders on ludicrous.
And then there are the hard-headed media moguls who have also become engrossed with it. In 1983, American Ted Turner offered a reward of $100,000 to anyone who found one and in 2005 Australia’s Kerry Packer upped the ante, his magazine, The Bulletin, offering more than $1m.
Scientists who have also fallen under its spell occupy a category all of their own.
At the turn of the 21st century, Australian palaeontologist Mike Archer made headlines around the world when he announced he had extracted DNA from a preserved thylacine specimen – a seemingly extraordinary feat for the time – and would produce a Tassie tiger within just 10 years.
Needless to say, it did not happen – a budget of less than $30,000 and the discovery that the thylacine DNA was contaminated with human DNA did not help.
Twenty years later, rather than taking his pet thylacine for a walk as he’d dreamed, the now professor is in the basement of the University of New South Wales, delicately chipping away at blocks of limestone from the World Heritage Riversleigh fossil site, searching for thylacine bones to map its evolution.
“This one is actually 15 million years old,” the 68-year-old says, staring in awe at the exquisite, wafer-thin skull carefully balanced in the palm of his hand.
He explains that 25 million years ago there were many different species of thylacines – some the size of wolves, others much smaller, less than 30 centimetres long. But they began dwindling until only one species was left from about five million years ago. It was the ancestor to the Tasmanian thylacine.
Archer wishes Tasmania’s settlers could have known about the species’ long-term decline before they started slaughtering it.
“I’d love to think that they might have thought twice, that this is not an animal that was robust and resilient and could sustain that kind of abuse. The reality was, it was way out on the edge of its evolutionary limb and they pushed it over very easily,” he says, forlornly.
It is one of the reasons he has no regrets about the insurmountable challenge he set himself.
“It was ramping up the whole discussion about whether extinction really did have to be forever and whether we want any more species to go extinct. We needed to start down this path. Everybody recognises yesterday’s science fiction can become tomorrow’s science faction. We didn’t know whether it would ever be able to be done. But all I was convinced of is, if we don’t try it, we can be guaranteed it’ll never happen.”
He fires back at critics who suggest he was trying to play God.
“We played God when we exterminated these species,” he thunders, before regaining his composure, “I think all of these efforts of de-extinction are about trying to play smart human, to try to undo when we played God and get the world balanced back again.”
‘Restoring the past for a better future’
The same sentiments are being trumpeted by those behind the latest de-extinction venture – University of Melbourne professor, Andrew Pask, and his collaborator and backer, American biotechnology and genetic engineering company, Colossal.
The company rolled out the catchphrase, “Restoring the past for a better future”, in late 2021 when it announced its inaugural project to genetically resurrect the legendary woolly mammoth.
Extinct for some 10,000 years, Colossal says it will edit the genome of an Asian elephant, to create its giant, furry, relative, setting itself the “mammoth” goal of doing it in the next five or six years. More than $75m has already been secured from investors.
Now the slogan is being used to raise finance – more than $10m to date, for the de-extinction of Australia’s iconic thylacine.
The so-called moon-shot projects have attracted influential and powerful investors, from a Hollywood megastar – the Marvel Movies’ Chris Hemsworth – and celebrities like Paris Hilton to private conservation organisations and, perhaps most intriguing, the United States intelligence agency, the CIA.
The latter’s interest appears of little surprise to Ben Lamm, the effervescent, smooth-talking, serial entrepreneur who founded Colossal.
“I think that the federal government wants to understand what the capabilities are around these technologies. Where do we need to put boundaries around these technologies? And then how can these technologies really help the world? Right?” he says, speaking via video call from Dallas, Texas, a graffiti-inspired artwork hanging on the wall behind him.
Lamm may have come to the thylacine only recently, after it presented a serious business opportunity, but his de-extinction partner, Pask, has been studying the marsupial’s development for 20 years.
Inspired by Mike Archer, calling him “a pioneer and a big vision thinker who didn’t have the genetic technology at the time to back up his big ideas”, Pask says he became fascinated with the possibility of extracting DNA from museum specimens so he might “unlock more about the biology of the relatively recently extinct animal”.
“We know that DNA breaks down over time. So, for example, there is no DNA left in dinosaur bones. So, the first thing was just trying to figure out, is there DNA in those specimens?”
Pask’s first stop was Melbourne Museum. Located a few city blocks from the university, it’s home to one of the world’s best thylacine collections.
A Herculean challenge
In its back rooms, away from harmful sunlight, are drawers laden with thylacine pelts – their stripes, distinct as ever, barely blemished by time, and shelves holding mounts of the creature – some eerily lifelike in the dim light. But perhaps most evocative, securely locked away, are jars of baby thylacines – known as pouch-young because they were too young to leave their mother’s pouch – their eyes yet to open, their small, perfectly formed, wax-like bodies, serenely floating in a clear solution.
One pouch-young specimen preserved 110 years ago, long before the value of DNA was fully understood, has proved crucial. Holding it close to his face, enamoured, Pask explains how it came to be such a treasure.
“It was put into ethanol, which was quite amazingly fortuitous. What that did is it enabled it to preserve the DNA within that specimen really well and so it’s actually the one that enabled us to sequence the entire genome and will be the foundation of bringing the thylacine back.”
But there’s a Herculean challenge ahead, turning the genome into a living creature.
In 2008, Pask achieved a milestone. In a world first, he and his team succeeded in bringing a fragment of DNA from the extinct thylacine back to life. Inserting it into a mouse embryo by editing the rodent’s genome, they tagged it blue to make it visible.
Bringing up a series of photographs on his computer screen he points to the mouse’s skeleton glowing blue.
“We brought back a gene that we thought was really important for skeletal development, for the shape and overall size of the thylacine. So everywhere you see blue, you’re seeing that piece of thylacine DNA, resurrected and actually functioning in that living animal.”
To bring a whole thylacine back, not just a slither of its DNA, they intend to edit the genome of a fat-tailed dunnart. It’s the thylacine’s closest-living relative, but to the uninformed eye, you’d never know it. Looking more like a mouse, the tiny marsupial is about one-hundredth of the size of a thylacine.
Pask and his team are breeding a colony of about 100 dunnarts in the heavily fortified basement of the university’s bioscience building. Clasping one in his hand, its irresistibly cute face nervously poking out from between his fingers, Pask explains that the dunnart’s genome is more than 95 percent identical to a thylacine and that the remaining 5 percent will be edited to fashion it into the striped, dog-like, marsupial the world recognises as a thylacine.
“It’s amazing to think a little marsupial like this could give birth to a Tasmanian tiger,” he says, enjoying the incredulous expressions in response, as he gently returns the shy creature to a box where a hollow plastic mound serves as a makeshift burrow.
In simple terms, the first step in the de-extinction project will involve Pask’s team sourcing stem cells from the dunnart. The second will see Colossal edit the stem cells to match the genome of a thylacine. In the third, the nucleus of a dunnart egg will be removed and replaced with the nucleus of the engineered thylacine stem cell. Then finally, at the fourth step, the resulting embryo will be implanted into a host. From there a thylacine will be born.
Pask appears relatively confident his team will be able to produce a genetically engineered thylacine cell in the next 10 years, but suggests it could be decades before a thylacine is born, let alone let loose in the wild.
Colossal’s CEO, however, is much less circumspect. The businessman is sure, given the short 14-day gestation period of marsupials in comparison with the almost two-year gestation period for elephants, that the thylacine project will deliver before the company’s woolly mammoth project. When asked if that means we will see a thylacine produced in the next five years, his response is quick. “I think that’s a really good assessment,” he says, nodding repeatedly.
The launch of the multimillion-dollar thylacine de-extinction project in mid-August 2022 not only set off a blizzard of international media reports, but sparked a firestorm of debate among scientists and conservationists.
At Sydney’s Australian Museum, its director and chief scientist, Kris Helgen, stands over an exquisite thylacine pelt he has laid out on the top of a steel trolley. Next to its hind leg, he deliberately places a fat-tailed dunnart. His hands gloved to protect the specimens from human contamination, he points to the dunnart and says with more than a hint of derision. “Does that look anything like a thylacine to you?”
The former curator in charge of mammals at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC does not hold back when it comes to his appraisal of Colossal’s and Pask’s thylacine de-extinction project. He believes it’s “fanciful”, not just because of the obvious differences between the dunnart and a thylacine, but, he argues, they are far too distantly related, that it would be like turning a dog into a cat or a horse into a rhinoceros.
“The thylacine is so different from all other marsupials that it’s in its own family,” he says and then poses the question, “Could you ever modify the DNA of the dunnart to get it anything close to becoming a thylacine? I say absolutely not. So many species in Australia are threatened with extinction; to spend a lot of money doing something that I think is unfeasible is a missed opportunity.”
Catastrophic bushfires, droughts and massive habitat destruction have had a devastating effect on Australia’s environment to the point where it is in crisis. The country has lost more species of mammals than on any other continent and has one of the highest rates of species in decline in the world.
One of those is another marsupial, the Tasmanian devil. It has long been a signature species for animals on the brink of extinction. A highly contagious and deadly facial tumour is responsible for wiping out more than 80 percent of the population. Andrew Pask and Colossal claim their thylacine project will potentially offer new hope for the devil’s long-term survival.
“If the Tasmanian tiger was still around, it would eat those sick and injured animals, removing them from the population before they have a chance to spread that disease. We think that bringing that animal back to Tasmania would have incredible benefits, not just for the Tasmanian devil population but for all sorts of unforeseen parts of that ecosystem,” he says.
But Tasmanian conservationist, Nick Mooney, who has spent his life in the wilderness working for the state’s parks and wildlife service, caring for sick devils, dismisses the thesis as “naïve” and argues the thylacine project is being promoted under a “false premise”.
“By the time this has happened we’ll have so many more extinctions and there’ll be fractions of habitat left and the very best thylacine habitat will be well and truly under lock and key, fenced and pastured, and all the rest of it, some of it cemented.”
And when it comes to the devils, Mooney is quick to point out the seemingly ludicrous irony of bringing back an extinct species only to potentially threaten another.
“They’ve become very rare. What do you do? Put thylacines back in there and suppress them further? And in fact, there’s no way you can roll back the disease. It’s got its own momentum, if you like. And there’s just so many moving parts in this machine now that people are influencing, from road kill to development of all sorts, pesticides and then climate change.”
Mooney believes real conservation is about preventing extinctions, arguing, “If we focus on this effort to reconstruct an animal, we’re going to teach people that extinction isn’t forever and we can fix everything later. I think this project is a very serious distraction for genuine nature conservation.”
Kris Helgen is of the same view, but goes further, suggesting the thylacine project is a publicity stunt, diverting private investors away from genuine ventures.
“Because the animal is so beloved, everybody wants to believe in the story that some are telling that maybe we could bring it back. If you really wanted to show that de-extinction was possible you would probably be starting with animals that were much less charismatic. Australia’s extinct native rodents, or maybe extinct native bandicoots. These are some animals that have very close living relatives and you might have an actual shot at achieving something. But they wouldn’t be the charismatic ones that would bring in those tens of millions of dollars of investment.”
For Ben Lamm, the criticism appears of little consequence. Hitting back, he says, “I think any time you’re pushing the bounds of technology and doing something bold, you’re going to have critics. What I will tell you is that the world that we live in needs bold solutions.”
As Andrew Pask walks into his university laboratory, aptly named the TIGGR Lab, an acronym for Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research, he seems remarkably relaxed about the challenges ahead and unphased by the ambitious five-year deadline set by Lamm.
Having been the first person in his family to go to university, the first in the world to bring a fragment of extinct DNA back to life, there is no doubt he is hoping to take out the trifecta and become the first to triumph in the animal de-extinction stakes, but ultimately, he says, he will judge his success on the discoveries they make along the way.
“The reason I love this project is because, regardless of the end point, the conservation technologies that we develop are going to be transformative for marsupials.”
To back up his declaration, he starts listing them – the development of genetic mechanisms including man-made pouches to repopulate after bushfires and techniques to bolster immune systems to better fight diseases and predators, as well as, improved chances of surviving climate change.
“They are things that we absolutely will unequivocally be able to achieve through this project,” he says resolutely, then adds, almost as an afterthought, but with a boisterous chuckle, “As well as bringing the thylacine back.”