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Is This Mysterious Marsupial Still Alive?

Australia’s Thylacine, an odd marsupial carnivore that’s a closer relative of kangaroos than of dogs, may yet be found on the fringes of the Australian Outback. At least, that’s the hope of researchers at Australia’s James Cook University, who are organizing a search for survivors in the remote and virtually inaccessible Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland.

Thylacines were (are?) fast-moving doglike predators who once prowled all over Australia and Tasmania. They’re descended from marsupials, like koalas and wallabies, but they physically resemble greyhounds with vertical stripes on their haunches. This last trait earned them the popular name “Tasmanian tigers” when European settlers first encountered them in the 19th century. Unfortunately, the animals were seen as a pest that threatened sheep, and so the settlers organized hunts and killed off nearly every wild Thylacine they could catch. As far as anybody knows, the last living Tasmanian tiger died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936.

Australia is a big place, however, and it’s not out of the question for a small number of thylacines to have hung on at the very fringes of human settlement. If the reports of living thylacines are true, and they do seem to come from reliable sources at the Queensland Park Service, then 21st-century ecologists may have a chance at finding these enigmatic animals and nursing their populations back from the brink.

Unlike the massive hunts of 100 years ago, Cook University’s Dr. Sandra Abell doesn’t plan on shooting any of the animals, if she’s lucky enough to find any at all. Instead, her team plans to set up over 50 camera traps to spot likely candidates. These cameras are wired up to motion sensors and calibrated to activate only when something roughly the size of a thylacine lopes past their field of view, reducing false positives and wasted effort.

If the search turns up an actual, living Thylacine — or better yet, a whole family of them —scientists may get the rarest of gifts with extinct animals: a second chance.

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