Daily TWiP Archives

Something interesting has happened on (just about) every day of the year, and Daily TWiP provides the proof. An offshoot of my local events column The Week in Preview (affectionately known as TWiP), Daily TWiP was published April 2008-Aug. 2011 and is still giving readers reasons to celebrate.

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Daily TWiP – Sept. 7, 1936: “Benjamin,” the last thylacine, dies

The word “thylacine” conjures up images of a sleekly-named antibiotic, but it’s actually a now-extinct carnivorous marsupial. “Benjamin,” the last of the thylacines (commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger) died in captivity at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania on Sept. 7, 1936.

The thylacine looked like a large dog with a stiff, thin tail that sloped down and away from its body in a similar fashion to the tail of a kangaroo. Its coat was short and yellow-brown in color with several dark stripes running across its back, rear, and the base of its tail. These stripes faded as the thylacine aged.

The thylacine had a long snout and extremely flexible jaws. Photographs show that it could open its mouth as wide as 120 degrees, a definite advantage when you’re a carnivore.

Both male and female thylacines had pouches. The female’s pouch was on her belly, where it protected four teats. With most marsupials, the pouch opens toward the front of the animal’s body. In the case of the thylacine, it opened toward the rear.

The male’s pouch, known as a scrotal pouch, was located a little further back on his body than was the female’s pouch, and served to protect his scrotal sac. Now that the thylacine is extinct, the South American water opossum is the only member of the marsupial family where the male also has a pouch.

It is partially because of this scrotal pouch that we use quotes around the name given to the last thylacine in captivity. None of the photographs of this particular creature show a scrotal sac, so it’s possible that “Benjamin” may have been a female. Because the scrotal sac could just have been concealed within the pouch, however, scientists may never be completely certain.

The other reason for the quotes around “Benjamin” is that this wasn’t really the thylacine’s name. The name first appears in a newspaper article in 1968, in which a former zoo employee named Frank Darby claimed the thylacine was affectionately referred to as Benjamin.

Unfortunately, when the reporter followed up with the zoo, it turned out that they had never had an employee by the name of Frank Darby, nor had the thylacine ever been referred to as Benjamin. For better or for worse, however, the name has stuck.

Adding to “Benjamin’s” mystery are the sad circumstances under which she/he died. The animal had somehow been locked out of its sleeping shelter during an extreme bout of Tasmanian weather. It simply couldn’t handle the combination of blasting heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night. Had it been able to get into its sleeping shelter, “Benjamin” may have lived a few years more.

Both the thylacine and the Hobart Zoo are now long gone, but you can still see this amazing creature in action. Visit www.naturalworlds.org to see all of the existing motion picture footage of the thylacine.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Sept. 7, 2010.

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