National Geographic

Living in Tasmania is the Tasmanian tiger. It is not literally sensed in Australia – a century ago, it was almost the only sighting of the iconic marsupial predator, but not confirmed – but in collective regret for its extinction and cultural recognition, in memory and in imagination.

“To ‘de-extinct’ the species and return it to nature is also a live endeavor undertaken by a small group of scientists and entrepreneurs.”

The Europeans victimized the thylacine due to their mistakes and ignorance. The thylacine, which lived only in Tasmania, was neither a tiger nor a cat. This means that there are important things to consider first.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal name for Lutruwita, also known as Tasmania in honor of its late renaming, is “animals with tiger-like claws” where some of their tracks were found searching for sweet water by a detachment of Tasmanian sailors. In 1642, Tasman, a Dutch navigator and explorer, arrived on the eastern shores of an island he named Van Diemen’s Land as a tribute to the governor-general of the Dutch East India Company, Anthony van Diemen, who promoted his expedition to search for exploitable new southern lands. Tasman was the Dutch navigator and explorer who forged the fame of the tiger.

Tilacinos en cautividad
Archivos de la Smithsonian Institution

The largest predators of modern times, the marsupial predators that survived until modern times, were labeled as primitive and stupid. The Tasmanian tiger, also known as the thylacine, was considered to be a clumsy and unmanageable creature by early observers, who saw the Australian marsupials as monstrous and deformed. In the Northern Hemisphere, these marsupials from the ignorance of colonial prejudices were considered superior to the marsupial wolf, dingo, and the variously named Tasmanian animal.

That atrocity is a symbol of the extinction of the thylacine. The fact that Australia has not recovered from it is a transformation of the ecosystem. In a short time, its replacement by introduced foreign species became what initially started as a misclassification and demonization of the native fauna.

Registros grabados en piedra
Tony Wheeler, División de Historia Institucional

Hunters and shepherds of bullets and traps succumbed thousands of thylacines to poison in the following two decades. In 1888, a program of bounties was approved, and the indigenous “tiger” was depicted as a bloodthirsty sheep killer. Although it has been shown that these animals caused significant losses to livestock, it was not proven that they were much less in number. However, in their field of extermination, the species could have found refuge. Only the population of Tasmania, which was disconnected from Lutruwita due to the rise in sea level, remained. The competition with the recently arrived dingo and a changing climate are likely to be the main causes, but nobody knows for sure. This species disappeared from continental Australia about 3,000 years ago. The last known existence of the Tasmanian tiger, also known as the thylacine, was on the island of New Guinea. In the past, there were at least five species of the Thylacinus genus.

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The freedom of officially declared extinct species, the thylacines, confirmed sightings without any for 56 years until late 1986 came to protect these animals, appeals were made. Finally, these economic compensations, which were decreasing, completely ceased until there were few thylacines left at the beginning of the 20th century. The rewards program was a successful endeavor.

Undeniable… And even more mourned is the disappearance of the species as time goes by and no one comes forward to claim the prize of over one million dollars that was put forward in 2005 for anyone who can present definitive proof of the presence of the thylacine. At one stage, it was estimated that one out of every three Tasmanians had encountered a “genuine” sighting of the tiger, but numerous people dismissed the judgment.

Kris Helgen, the scientific director of the Australian Museum, mammalogist and National Geographic Explorer, who has analyzed thylacine specimens in numerous museums, reveals that this creature held a position of dominance as a predator in continental Australia for the majority of its existence. With a blend of admiration and wonder, Helgen emphasizes the remarkable stature they possessed, having measured approximately 500 skulls.

The thylacine did not belong to any of them. And the thylacine was the last member of its family [the thylacinids], Helgen explains. When you think about what a family of mammals is, you realize what that means: bears are a family, giraffes are a family, horses are a family, dolphins are a family. In Australia, there are several families of marsupials: kangaroos, possums, ring-tailed phalangers, and other carnivorous species. Even more impressive than its role as a superpredator carnivore is its position in the evolutionary pantheon.

“It was absolutely unique, very ancient, and its entire history always unfolded on this continent.”

“It is thought that the final untamed thylacine perished in a rural region in northwest Tasmania in 1930, falling victim to a hunter’s gunfire, who captured a photograph of it after its demise. Six years afterward, the last imprisoned specimen passed away in a zoo in Hobart; a mere two months prior, the Government of Tasmania had ultimately designated the thylacine as a safeguarded species; as stated by specialist Robert Paddle, “the species was completely safeguarded during the concluding 59 days of its existence”.”

Sheep, alleged prey of the thylacine, pure and hard irony, and apples, hops, are the main exports of the State in a shield supported by a pair of golden thylacines. Tasmania’s coat of arms, with the dominant emblem chosen as the thylacine, gained cultural importance in 1917, while the number of thylacines decreased.

Último miembro de su familia, el tilacino era absolutamiente singular, muy antiguo, y su historia siempre se desarrolló en un único continente.

“The thylacine is Tasmania -writes David Owen, a author based in Hobart-. Just for that reason, it is still alive.” It has gone from pest to idol. Today its image is everywhere: on beer labels, on buses, as the mascot of the Tasmanian cricket team, and even starring in Australia’s national threatened species day.

EXTINCTION PLANS

Does it live in the memory… But could it come back to live in reality?

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The idea of resurrecting the thylacine emerged in the late 1990s, when it was proposed to clone genetic material from preserved DNA specimens in museums, but it was suspended due to the degraded and fragmented availability of the material. This ambitious project was called the Lazarus Project.

The Texas biotech firm is additionally backed by a cluster of genetic scientists from the University of Melbourne’s self-proclaimed TIGRR Laboratory (representing the acronym Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research, which focuses on the integrated restoration of the thylacine’s genome), leading the charge in this endeavor. The resurrection of extinct species is once again being considered, as recent advancements have yielded tools capable of precise genetic manipulation, enabling the recreation of a thylacine genome using various genetic sources.

In 2022, Andrew Pask, the principal investigator of TIGRR, predicted that his team would produce the first hybrid thylacine breeding, as seen in the previous page’s graphic.

Helgen’s vision is not clear. According to him, the primary challenge lies in the genetic gap that separates the thylacine from all its living relatives. Unlike the woolly mammoth, another extinct mammal under consideration for de-extinction, the thylacine lacks a closely related species that can serve as a genetic benchmark and provide cells capable of developing viable embryos carrying the thylacine genome. In the case of the woolly mammoth, the Asian elephant fulfills this role. Helgen states that the proposed carrier of the reconstructed thylacine genome, the fat-tailed marsupial mouse, is genetically as distantly related to the thylacine as a human is to a tamarin.

“Here, the laughter would be heard, turning a dog into a cat or turning a horse into a rhinoceros, if someone were to say that they can take a horse and turn it into a rhinoceros, if the rhinoceros were to become extinct today… It doesn’t work like that. Simply because we have a range of modern genetic tools, we cannot resurrect this carnivorous marsupial. The difference would be equivalent to that between a cat and a dog, or between a horse and a rhinoceros – he argues. The thylacine was completely different.”

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We can manage and protect the wild habitats that surround us and the species that inhabit them through proven methods, rather than relying on magical technologies that may not be able to save the many species facing extinction, as Helgen suggests. It is not a viable plan to try to revive the dead and instead we should focus on protecting the living from anthropogenic causes in the current crisis of biodiversity. Starting with Helgen’s opinion, the scientific community largely agrees that the urgent task at hand is to preserve what remains, rather than diverting efforts towards the fantasy of de-extinction.

El tilacino es un elocuente símbolo de lo que hemos perdido, pero al mismo tiempo también es un símbolo de esepranza.

If we want to prevent future extinctions, we all must take on commitments that protect vulnerable native species and collectively oppose environmental degradation. They established the world’s first green political party after their extinction. The Tasmanians committed themselves to ensuring that a similar tragedy never happened again. It is also a symbol of hope, but at the same time, it is a poignant reminder of what we have lost, the thylacine.

The thylacine speaks to us from the past century: let’s not wait until it’s too late.

Steps towards restoration

In order to bring it back to life, the current goal is to utilize the genome of one of its closest living relatives – the marsupial mouse with a thick tail. Currently, there are around 800 specimens preserved, but less than 20 of them were stored in the medium that best preserves nuclear DNA, as we approach the centenary of the death of the last known thylacine.

1) Sequencing the Genome

The DNA of a preserved centenarian specimen was sequenced in ethanol.

2) Sequencing the Relative

A marsupial rodent contributes living cells and the “genomic blueprint” to begin with.

3) IDENTIFY THE DIFFERENCES

The genes that primarily distinguish the marsupial mouse from the thylacine are altered.

4) CREATE THE CELL

The act of editing stem cells from the marsupial mouse results in the creation of a new living cell that is similar to a “thylacine”.

5) MERGING IT WITH AN EGG

The core of the cell is transferred to an empty marsupial mouse egg and “fertilized” to obtain an embryo.

6) EMBRYO IMPLANTATION

Once entirely developed, the embryo could be implanted into the uterus of a female marsupial mouse.

7) PROMOTE MATURATION

After the pregnancy and childbirth, newborns would be raised with a bottle or with a larger-sized marsupial.

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