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Specimen of the Week 223: The Tasmanian wolf

By ucwepwv, on 18 January 2016

One of the most interesting things about zoology for me is the way in which skulls are sculpted by evolutionary and environmental forces. A particularly fascinating outcome of such processes is convergent evolution, which occurs when distantly related organisms live in a similar environment and have a similar mode of life, resulting in them looking and often behaving like each other. My favourite example of this phenomenon is shown by my Specimen of the Week…

LDUCZ-Z90 Thylacine skull [Grant Museum, UCL / Fred Langford-Edwards]

LDUCZ-Z90 Thylacine skull [Grant Museum, UCL / Fred Langford-Edwards]

**the Tasmanian wolf (Thylacinus cynocephalus)**

Gone but not forgotten

The thylacine went extinct in 1936, with the last individual expiring as a captive at Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. Thanks to their taste for chickens and (purportedly) sheep, the species was relentlessly persecuted by farmers from the 1830s, with a bounty offered by the Tasmanian government during the latter part of the 19th century. Disease, competition from feral dogs, extinction of prey species and men with guns put a lead nail in the thylacine’s coffin.

Mr. Weaver and a bagged Thylacine by Victor Prout?, 1869 [public domain]

Mr. Weaver and a bagged thylacine by Victor Prout?, 1869 [public domain]

Despite this depressing tale, we do at least have quite a few specimens in museums around the world, which can tell us something about this extinct, but iconic species.

Tasmanian wolf?

The common name of the thylacine is a bit misleading, since the species had been quite widespread across Australia and even New Guinea until around 2,000 years ago, when they were ousted by competition from dingoes and wild dogs. Tasmania did however remain a safe haven for the thylacine until it became settled by Europeans in 1803, who brought their dogs and guns.

Tasmanian wolf?

Another misleading element of the thylacine’s common name is the ‘wolf’ bit. Despite eating meat the thylacine was not a true Carnivore (note the capital ‘c’) like wolves and dogs. In fact, the decidedly doggy appearance is very misleading, since man’s best friend shares more common ancestry with a blue whale than with a thylacine. The Tasmanian wolf was actually a marsupial and more closely related to a kangaroo or possum, with pouch and all. In fact, even the males had a pouch (which is very unusual), providing a mechanism for protecting their delicate parts when running through snaggy undergrowth. After all, who wouldn’t want to avoid snagging a testicle on something sharp when moving at speed?

Similarities and differences

Considering the lack of a close relationship between thylacines and dogs, the similarity between their skulls is quite remarkable:

Thylacine skull (left) vs dog skull (right)

LDUCZ-Z90 thylacine skull (left) vs LDUCZ-Z1707 dog skull (right) N.B. not to same scale

As you can see, the overall shape is broadly the same – in fact the shape difference can be far more extreme between two different breeds within the domestic dog species.

LDUCZ-Z1044 & LDUCZ-Z1046 skulls of two different dog breeds [Grant Museum, UCL]

LDUCZ-Z1044 & LDUCZ-Z1046 skulls of two different dog breeds [Grant Museum, UCL]

When it comes to evolutionary convergence the similarities we see tend to be functional, so you expect to see certain shared features of the skull and teeth for medium to large carnivores (small ‘c’) that hunt small to medium sized prey by chomping on them or ripping bits off. However, when you look at the finer details of convergent species you tend to see differences occurring that are due to relationships rather than function.

LDUCZ-Z90 Thylacine palate (left) vs LDUCZ-Z1707 dog palate (right) N.B. not to same scale

LDUCZ-Z90 thylacine palate (left) vs LDUCZ-Z1707 dog palate (right) N.B. not to same scale

A good example of this can be seen in the bony palate of the thylacine compared to the dog. Marsupials have an incompletely ossified palate, whereas placental mammals have a solid bony roof to their mouth. Marsupials also have their tear duct on the outside border of the eye socket, whereas placentals have it on the internal border. It’s these little features that make it easy to spot the difference between a thylacine and a dog skull – at least for those who know what to look for.

Big beast

Finally, this Specimen of the Week caught my eye more than the other Tasmanian wolf skulls in the collection because it’s by far the biggest I’ve ever seen, measuring in at 256mm (measured from prosthion to inion using calipers). This is in the same size range as a female northern timber wolf and presumably reflects that the animal it came from was a really big male thylacine. It would be great to know if anyone has seen a bigger example!

Paolo Viscardi is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

3 Responses to “Specimen of the Week 223: The Tasmanian wolf”

  • 1
    Stephen Henstridge wrote on 18 January 2016:

    So sad they are not still around

  • 2
    Douglass Rovinsky wrote on 19 January 2016:

    There is a specimen (USNM A38801) at the NMNH in Washington, DC in the same general size range (251 mm prosthion–inion; 241 mm prosthion to occipital condyle).

  • 3
    Douglass Rovinsky wrote on 12 December 2017:

    I know this is total ‘thread necromancy’, but I just wanted the correct information out online: The NMNH specimen is only 241 mm prosthion-inion. However, there are two specimens in Australia that are as big/bigger than 256 mm (one in Adelaide, one in Sydney), one in Leeds (UK) that is bigger, and one in Hobart (Tasmania) that is the biggest I’ve seen (a whole whopping 5 mm or so bigger… hahaha). This seems to have been about the largest they got.

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