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The Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) jaw was too weak for it to hunt much more than possums, new research says. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Tasmanian tiger too weak to hunt sheep

  • BY AAP and AG staff |
  • September 01, 2011

Tasmanian tigers had skulls too weak to hunt much more than possums, according to new research.

TASMANIAN TIGERS WERE INNOCENT of the crime that led many hunters to send them to extinction in the early 20th century, a study has revealed.

The iconic thylacine was mercilessly persecuted for allegedly killing sheep. But new research shows the carnivorous marsupial had jaws too weak to tackle anything much larger than a possum.

Scientists believe the thylacine's inability to take down larger prey, together with loss of habitat, largely contributed to its downfall. The paid hunters who went gunning for the animal only finished what nature had started.

"Our research has shown that its rather feeble jaw restricted it to catching smaller, more agile prey," says Dr Marie Attard, from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). "That's an unusual trait for a large predator like that, considering its substantial thirty-kilogram body mass and carnivorous diet. 

1869. Thylacine shot by Weaver.  

Tasmanian tiger bark worse than its bite

"As for its supposed ability to take prey as large as sheep, our findings suggest that its reputation was at best overblown. While there is still much debate about its diet and feeding behaviour, this new insight suggests that its inability to kill large prey may have hastened it on the road to extinction."

The findings appear in the Journal of Zoology, published on Thursday by the Zoological Society of London.

Thylacines, nicknamed Tasmanian tigers, once ranged across Australia and Papua New Guinea but were confined to Tasmania by the time Europeans settled in the region. Loss of habitat and prey, and the bounty paid to hunters to kill them, have been blamed for the thylacines' extinction.

Despite its decline the thylacine did not receive official protection from the Tasmanian government until two months before the last known specimen died at Hobart Zoo on September 7, 1936.

Thylacine too weak to hunt big prey

The scientists measured stress patterns in the skulls of a thylacine and two of Australasia's largest remaining marsupial predators, the Tasmanian devil and the spotted-tailed quoll. Of the three, the thylacine skull was by far the most stressed in response to simulations of struggling prey and tearing and pulling bites.

"By comparing the skull performance of the extinct thylacine with those of closely related, living species we can predict the likely body size of its prey," says Dr Stephen Wroe, director of UNSW's Computational Biomechanics Research Group. "We can be pretty sure that thylacines were competing with other marsupial carnivores to prey on smaller mammals, such as bandicoots, wallabies and possums."

"Especially among large predators, the more specialised a species becomes the more vulnerable it is to extinction. Just a small disturbance to the ecosystem, such as those resulting from the way European settlers altered the land, may have been enough to tip this delicately poised species over the edge."

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