A pair of thylacines that were on display at the National Zoo  in Washington D.C in 1903  ©Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons 

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Why we want to believe thylacines still exist

Every year there are reports that thylacines, large carnivorous marsupials that were hunted to extinction in the 1930s, are still kicking around in the outback of Australia.

The lack of any solid evidence for their existence makes these claims dubious, yet some people are still adamant that the animal clings on in remote pockets of bush.

Why does the thylacine still capture our imagination? And what does its legacy reveal about our own species? 

Thylacines recently made headlines once again  after an amateur group of enthusiasts claimed to have finally captured footage of the animal, some 80 years after the last known individual of the species died in Hobart Zoo in 1936.

The dog-like marsupials, also referred to as the Tasmanian tiger, were driven to extinction due to hunting after they were targeted by sheep farmers on Tasmania.

But that hasn't stopped many from believing that they have spotted the animals still roaming the wilds of Australia, with numerous unconfirmed sightings of the thylacine reported every year.

This recent bout of excitement was rather quickly quenched when the footage was sent to experts at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, who revealed that instead of a purported thylacine family, the remote cameras had instead picked up a rather more common pademelon, a marsupial not dissimilar to kangaroos and wallabies.

But the spark of interest and the fact that people are still looking for the thylacine, despite all the evidence pointing to its extinction, reveals a lot about how we, as a species, have collectively dealt with its demise.

Dr Anjali Goswami is a mammalian researcher at the Museum and has spent a lot of time studying the evolution of marsupials, both alive and dead.

'I think that the thylacine in particular captures our attention because it is both so familiar and so different,' says Anjali. 'There are few linages of these marsupial carnivores, but the thylacine is actually quite a distinct lineage within that group.'

The thylacine is particularly interesting in that, despite being a marsupial with a pouch, it evolved to look astonishingly dog-like in appearance. Thylacines and domestic dogs are separated by over 100 million years of evolution - the modern thylacine first appeared about two million years ago.

Despite the gap, the skull of a thylacine is so similar to that of a wolf or dog that unless you know what you are looking for they can be exceedingly difficult to tell apart.

Anjali thinks that this resemblance to the domestic dog almost certainly has a big part to play in why people are still so drawn to them.

'They are very different from anything else that is around Australia today, but they are also super familiar, more familiar to us than maybe any other species on Earth,' says Anjali. 'You would struggle to tell the difference between a thylacine skull and a wolf skull, although actually they are even a little bit more dog-like because the skulls are a bit more gracile than a wolf.

'They basically converged to look exactly like our best friends, and they are just out of reach.'

The fact that they survived into the era of film is also a significant factor. Not only does it give people, including Anjali, something tangible to obsess over, it also records behaviour that is so recognisable to us when we look at our pets.

The thylacine's extinction was also comparatively recent and feels both brutal and senseless.

Although multiple factors contributed to diminished thylacine numbers, the last surviving population in Tasmania was deliberately exterminated by humans. Between 1888 and 1909, the Tasmanian government even paid for dead thylacines.

'There is absolutely an element of guilt to all this,' says Anjali. 'Not just because it was so recent, but also because it was so gross, that bounties were being given for their bodies.

'It wasn't just that we screwed up and they accidentally went extinct because we cut down a rainforest in which they lived, it was because we went out to kill the entire species as fast as possible and we paid people to do it. We now have the guilt of having purposely eradicated this unique lineage, and for it to also be such a familiar, deeply loved animal.

'I think that's why people are obsessed with thylacines.'