Science

Tasmanian tiger doomed long before humans came along

Tasmanian tiger doomed long before humans came along”

On Monday, a team of Australian researchers informed they studied the body of the marsupial predator and concluded that the species was genetically predisposed to disappear. The species' complete genome, reported on 11 December in Nature Ecology and Evolution, offers clues to its decline and its uncanny resemblance to members of the distantly related dog family.

Rising seas cut Tasmania off from the mainland around 14,000 years ago, meaning the local thylacine population was always low in genetic diversity.

Of course, scientists said the genetic of the species is just one of the reasons.

Though humans were undoubtedly responsible for its demise in the first place. European colonists in the nineteenth century saw the predators as a threat to their sheep, and paid a bounty of £1 per carcass.

Reports have regularly emerged of people who say they have seen a Tasmanian tiger. About 750 thylacine specimens are held in museums, and most are pelts or bones with little viable DNA. In fact, some scientists believe this study can lead them to engineer a way to clone the species and bring the animal back to life.

"They were this freaky and singular species. There was nothing else like them in the world at the time", one of the researchers, Charles Feigin of the University of Melbourne, Australia, explains. "We would need to develop a marsupial model to host the thylacine genome, like work conducted to include mammoth genes in the modern elephant".

At that time, the DNA sequences they had were highly degraded, making sequencing an entire genome nearly impossible.

Tasmanian tiger

To read the genetic history of the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), biologists extracted and analysed DNA from a pup that's been preserved for more than a century.

The genome will not only help scientists in discovering the past of the specie, but will also enable them to shape up a potential future. Thus, letting them know the animal's ancestors. Similar patterns have been seen in the genome of the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). Feigin said that the animals turned more vulnerable in front humans when the temperature of the area started to decline.

In the latest study, a team led by developmental geneticist Andrew Pask of the University of Melbourne obtained the much longer nuclear genome, by sampling tissue from a one-month-old thylacine that had been found in its mother's pouch in 1909 and was preserved in alcohol.

"If two animals adapt to look nearly identical, do you see that also reflected in their genome - can you actually find parts of their DNA that evolve to look very similar?" he says.

Although the Tasmanian tiger evolved to look so similar to the dog-like dingo, scientists found that the genetics of the animal was more closely related to fellow Australian marsupial called the Tasmanian devil. "We can not bring it back", Shapiro says. The team saw a steep drop in genetic diversity suggesting that thylacine numbers began dwindling some 70,000-120,000 years ago, well before humans reached Australia.

Probably not today, or tomorrow.

Michael Archer, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, sees the genome-sequencing effort as important progress towards his long-time vision of bringing the marsupial back from extinction. Additionally, they concluded that this information would definitely help them to protect the Tasmanian devil and make it more healthy.



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