“We found a thylacine.”
They’re the words so many of us would love to be true.
And when we heard them (again) this week, this time in the title of a video posted to YouTube by the president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia (TAGOA) Neil Waters, we couldn’t help but become a little bit excited, albeit against our better instincts.
In the video uploaded on Monday, Mr Waters claimed to have captured footage of not one, but three thylacines — proof, he said, “of breeding”.
Addressing a handheld camera as he strolled through “some little town in north-east Tassie”, Mr Waters admitted the footage of the “mum and dad” thylacines was “ambiguous”.
“However,” he claimed, “the baby is not ambiguous”.
“The baby has stripes, a stiff tail, the hock, the course hair, it’s the right colour, it’s a quadruped, it’s stocky and it’s got the right-shaped ears.
Mr Waters said he had already shown the footage of the three animals to experts, including a vet and canine and feline “judges”.
“I know what they are and so do a few independent expert witnesses,” he said.
He then explained that he had given the footage to Nick Mooney, the honorary curator of vertebrate zoology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), for confirmation.
However, in a statement from TMAG, Mr Mooney rejected Mr Waters’ identification of the animals as thylacines.
“Nick Mooney has concluded that based on the physical characteristics shown in the photos provided by Mr Waters, the animals are very unlikely to be thylacines and are most likely Tasmanian pademelons,” the statement said.
“TMAG regularly receives requests for verification from members of the public who hope that the thylacine is still with us.
“However, sadly there have been no confirmed sightings of the thylacine since 1936.”
Could we use genetics to bring them back from the dead?
This is not the first purported Tasmanian tiger footage Mr Waters and TAGOA have released.
In 2016, they posted a video to YouTube shot on a phone in the Adelaide Hills that they believed showed a thylacine.
It’s also not the first time Mr Mooney has poured cold water on a reported sighting.
In 2017, he concluded that video footage shot by a trio of thylacine hunters in Tasmania’s southern interior was most probably a spotted quoll.
“It was better than other [footage] I’ve seen, but it is still not definitely a thylacine, in my opinion,” Mr Mooney told the ABC at the time.
The possibility that there actually are any thylacines left in the wild is close to zero.
The animals were short-lived — with a lifespan typically less than a decade — meaning there would need to be many individuals roaming the bush for the species to have survived this long.
Continuing to search for them is a waste of money, according to Mike Archer from UNSW Sydney.
“The problem is … people say there’s so much dense bush in Tasmania, and that’s true,” Professor Archer said.
“But that’s not where thylacines originally were. They were primarily out on the flats and grasslands.
Instead of searching for something that’s not there, Professor Archer, who led a project that successfully grew early-stage cloned embryos that contained extinct gastric brooding frog DNA, said our best bet was to invest in developing gene technology, such as CRISPR, to revive the species.
“I will always remain an optimist that this is going to happen, [especially] as the technology continues to advance,” he said.
“We now have the nuclear genome sequence and the mitochondrial genome sequence of the thylacine.
“Once you’ve got the Tasmanian devil genome and you know what needs to be changed to match the thylacine, that’s the way to go.”
Professor Archer said he had been contacted by investors hoping to back a program to “de-extinct” the Tasmanian tiger.