The Internal Anatomy of the Thylacine - A Historical Perspective

    The first scientific accounts of the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) focus almost exclusively on the description of its external characteristics (Paterson 1805), (Harris 1808), (Saint-Hilaire 1810), (Temminck 1824).  Little detail is noted about the animal's internal anatomy.  Harris for example states:

   "On dissecting this quadruped, nothing particular was observed in the formation of its viscera differing from others of its genus (at the time, the thylacine was placed in the genus Dasyurus).  The stomach contained the partly digested remains of a porcupine anteater, Myrmecophaga aculeate" (=echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus). 

    It was left to a succession of surgeons and medical anatomists to undertake much of the early investigative work on the internal anatomy of the thylacine primarily for the purpose of comparison with other species. This legacy survives to this day in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, which still holds a substantial number of thylacine specimens within its zoological collection (Source: ITSD 5th Revision 2013).

Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke
Sir William Henry Flower
Josef Hyrtl
Professor Daniel J. Cunningham
Sir Colin MacKenzie
Brücke, Flower, Hyrtl, Cunningham and MacKenzie.
Frank E. Beddard
Bernard Tucker
Sir Richard Owen
Professor James P. Hill
Professor Heinz Moeller
Beddard, Tucker, Owen, Hill and Moeller.
    The published and unpublished works of Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke (1845), Edwards Crisp (1855), Sir William Henry Flower (1865), Sir Richard Owen (1847, 1868), Josef Hyrtl (1873), Professor Daniel J. Cunningham (1882), Frank E. Beddard (1891), Professor James P. Hill (1902), Sir Colin MacKenzie (1919-1924), Bernard Tucker (1942), and more recently those of J. Pearson and J. M. De Bavay (1953), Professor Heinz Moeller (1968, 1970, 1997) and R. Leon Hughes (2000) have collectively made significant contributions to our understanding of the internal anatomy of the thylacine.
    The earliest historical reference to the study of the internal anatomy of the thylacine was that of the eye by Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke (1845), a German physician and physiologist.  Brücke's paper entitled "Anatomische untersuchengen uber die sogenanntaen leuchtenden augen bei den Wirbelthieren" published in the journal "Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie, und Wissenschaftliche Medicin", refers to the structure of the thylacine's tapetum lucidum; a reflective layer of tissue that lies immediately behind or sometimes within the retina of the eye.  This is the part of the eye responsible for eye shine.
Click the microscope icon for a magnified view of: tapetum lucidum.
    The remains of thylacines that were displayed in zoos provided an opportune source of specimens for detailed anatomical study.
  Sir Richard Owen (1804 - 1892), the famous English biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist, was granted right of first refusal to any exotic animal (including thylacines) that died at the London Zoo during his time as Professor (1836-1849) and Conservator (1849-1856) at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.  Owen also received thylacine specimens directly from Ronald Gunn in Launceston (Tasmania).  In the minutes of the Tasmanian Society dated 2nd September 1847, it states:

    "Read extracts from a letter from Professor Owen to Mr. Ronald C. Gunn, wherein he expresses an anxious desire to obtain an impregnated Platypus or Echidna preserved in spirits.  Also, the brains of the Thylacinus and Dasyurus (Devil of the colonists), with a view to making out the internal

Hunterian Museum - Royal College of Surgeons (London)
Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons (London).
Source: Illustrated London News, 4th October 1845, No: 179, Vol. VII.
structure.  A skull broken open and immersed in strong spirits would give the required opportunity.  Mr. Gunn expressed his hope that some of the members would aid him in procuring these desiderata for that eminent comparative anatomist Professor Owen" (Source: ITSD 5th Revision 2013).

    In a footnote to a paper published by Professor Owen (1845) in the Journal of the British Association for the Advancement of Science it is noted: "Entire and well-preserved bodies of the thylacine have since been transmitted by Ronald Gunn, Esq., to the Royal College of Surgeons".

    Owen (1868), in his book "On the Anatomy of Vertebrates", makes numerous anatomical references to the thylacine.  He discusses the arrangement of the fissures of the brain (p. 104), the turbinate bones (p. 208), the dental formula (p. 285), the length of the intestinal tract (p. 420), the female pouch and the sexual organs, eyelids and the tongue of pouch young (p. 774).

back to: External Anatomy (page 10) return to the subsection's introduction forward to: Internal Anatomy (page 2)

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