Nearly 90 years after the last thylacine died, a group of scientists at the University of Melbourne, Australia, are attempting to bring the extinct marsupial back to life
Thylacines, also known as Tasmanian tigers (despite being a marsupial and looking nothing like a tiger apart from their stripy back), are thought to have gone extinct back in 1936, when Benjamin – the last confirmed member of the species – died in captivity at Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo.
Reports of thylacine sightings in the wild continued long after Benjamin died, with many people hopeful that they might still be alive out there somewhere (stranger things have happened; this giant tortoise was rediscovered ambling on an island in the Galapagos in 2019, 113 years after it had last been sighted).
In September 2019, Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water, and Environment released a document of eight possible (but unverified) sightings over the previous three years. The Thylacine Awareness Group even believes the animal still roams around mainland Australia.
However, only occasional grainy footage has thus far been offered as evidence. One study in 2017 put the odds of the animal still surviving at 1.6 trillion to one, while another in 2018 disagreed with the math but still came down on the side that it was probably extinct, though "there is enough uncertainty to at least leave this open as a slight possibility."
Despite persisting in Tasmania until the 1930s, the species is believed to have been wiped out from mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago.
Scientists have since sequenced the genome of the animal – and with this, the team at Melbourne is hoping to "de-extinct" them. The lab has received a $5 million philanthropic gift to help them on their quest.
“Thanks to this generous funding we’re at a turning point where we can develop the technologies to potentially bring back a species from extinction and help safeguard other marsupials on the brink of disappearing,” Professor Pask, from the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne said in a press release.
“Our research proposes nine key steps to de-extinction of the thylacine. One of our biggest breakthroughs was sequencing the thylacine genome, providing a complete blueprint on how to essentially build a thylacine.”
“The funding will allow our lab to move forward and focus on three key areas: improving our understanding of the thylacine genome; developing techniques to use marsupial stem cells to make an embryo; and then successfully transferring the embryo into a host surrogate uterus, such as a dunnart or Tasmanian devil."
The team believes that the reintroduction of the species would be beneficial not just for the resurrected species itself, but for entire ecosystems.
“Of all the species proposed for de-extinction, the thylacine has arguably the most compelling case," Pask added. "The Tasmanian habitat has remained largely unchanged, providing the perfect environment to re-introduce the thylacine and it is very likely its reintroduction would be beneficial for the whole ecosystem."