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A ‘De-Extinction’ Company Says It’ll Bring Back the Tasmanian Tiger

The thylacine went extinct some time in the 20th century. What could take its place wouldn’t be the same.

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A pair of Tasmanian tigers in Washington's National Zoo.
Thylacines at the National Zoo in Washington in 1902.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The last known thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus, or Tasmanian tiger) died in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo in 1936. Now, a genetic engineering company that last year announced plans to put thousands of woolly mammoths back on the Siberian steppe has added the lost marsupial wolf to its de-extinction docket.

The company’s name is Colossal, and its declared aim is to bring back species wiped off the face of the planet by things like climate change (the mammoths) and humankind (the thylacine). These days, those two threats go hand-in-hand, and plenty of other large mammals are on the verge of disappearing, too, like the critically endangered vaquita.

Woolly mammoths went extinct about 4,000 years ago—the last ones were still alive when the Great Pyramids were being constructed in Egypt. The thylacine, which lived on the island of Tasmania, south of Australia, is a much more recent victim of extinction. Humans started hunting these striped marsupials once they were seen as a threat to settlers’ livestock (which they by and large weren’t), and the Tasmanian government put a price on their wolf-like heads.

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Despite its name and black stripes, the Tasmanian tiger was not closely related to big cats. It looked much like a dog, though it wasn’t related to canids, either. The thylacine was the largest marsupial carnivore when it went extinct; it was an animal that hunted in the brush and bore live young prematurely, rearing them in a pouch on its belly.

Though long gone, both thylacines and mammoths have their complete genomes sequenced, thanks to the amount of material they left behind—in mummified mammoth remains thawed from the Siberian permafrost and preserved thylacine pups and taxidermies in museums.

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Thylacine embryos and pups.
Preserved thylacine embryos and pups, which helped produce a thylacine genome.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Colossal’s stated goal is to bring a mammoth calf to bear within five years, capitalizing on breakthroughs in genomic sequencing and editing technologies to make such a far-fetched idea a reality. Its full-throated plan describing the thylacine’s return can be found here.

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Colossal is teaming up with the University of Melbourne’s Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research (TIGRR) Lab to work toward the thylacine’s resurrection; the lab received a philanthropic gift of $5 million earlier this year. Pask told Scientific American that Colossal’s contribution to the project is “more than that”—but offered no more detail than that.

The Winklevoss twins (made famous by their roles in the early days of Facebook, dramatized in The Social Network), the Hemsworth brothers, and Paris Hilton are some of Colossal’s investors, as reported by Bloomberg.

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The front-of-mind question is how a company still working on its mammoth project can juggle the thylacine’s resurgence alongside it. De-extincting a species is no small feat. That’s why it’s never been done. And to do so ethically, and in a way that doesn’t risk the health of the new animals or the existing ecosystem, is even harder.

One criticism of the current project is that it puts the return of extinct species (some long gone from this planet) before the health of extant species. Many marsupials in Australia are close to extinction now, and could theoretically be protected with the kind of big money being thrown around here. Colossal’s contention is that the return of these extinct species would improve the health of entire habitats.

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A bagged thylacine strung up beside a hunter.
Thylacines were hunted to extinction in the 20th century.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But what would be brought back wouldn’t be a thylacine, at least not exactly. That’s why Colossal began its recent announcement with “started the de-extinction of the thylacine” but later refers to “the creation of a proxy species of the Thylacine.”

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Because there are no Tasmanian tigers left—at least none we know of, and they certainly may have lived a little longer than until 1936—the animal the Pask Lab aims to produce would be born of the fat-tailed dunnart, a marsupial about the size of a mouse.

The dunnart is one of the thylacine’s closest living relatives, but it’s still quite far off the dog-sized animal on the evolutionary tree. Because the thylacine went extinct before the advent of robust recording devices and camera traps, there’s no way to exactly know how the animal behaved in its native environment.

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Even the animal’s hallmark sound, described as a double-yip by those rarified few who had a chance to hear it, is a near-impossible thing to replicate from a genetic code alone. Behavioral traits of extinct animals are far more difficult things to bring back than a creature that merely resembles what was lost, if we even get that far.

In short, the animal produced from this project will be thylacine-adjacent at best. The true thylacine is permanently gone.

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More: Colorized Footage of Tasmanian Tiger Brings an Extinct Species Back to Life