The Internal Anatomy of the Thylacine - A Historical Perspective

    Gregory S. Berns and Ken W. S. Ashwell (2017), in a paper entitled "Reconstruction of the Cortical Maps of the Tasmanian Tiger and Comparison to the Tasmanian Devil", published in the journal PloS ONE, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) techniques for the first time to scan two 100-year-old thylacine brain specimens and two brains (one preserved, one recent) from the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii).  Only 4 intact thylacine brain specimens still exist, the remaining 6 having been dissected (Source: ITSD 5th Revision 2013).  The two thylacine brains used in this study came from the Australian Museum in Sydney [AMS M18411] and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C [USNM 125345].

reconstruction of the neural pathways of the Tasmanian devil (left) and the thylacine (right)
Reconstruction of the neural pathways of the Tasmanian devil (left) and the thylacine (right).
Source: Berns & Ashwell (2017).

    MRI scans use strong magnetic fields, radio waves and field gradients to produce detailed images of the inside of the body.  They reveal detailed information about the architecture of the brain known as grey matter.  DTI is a magnetic resonance imaging technique that enables the measurement of the restricted diffusion of water in tissue in order to produce neural tract images, revealing the connective pathways of a brain known as white matter.  Using these techniques, Berns and Ashwell compared the structure of the thylacine brain to that of the Tasmanian devil and reconstructed the white matter tracts or neural wiring between different parts of the brain.  They found that thylacines have larger caudate zones than devils, which is consistent with complex cognition, a vital requisite in hunting. 

    Ashwell states: "The technology for imaging the preserved brains of rare, extinct, and endangered species is an exciting innovation in the study of brain evolution and will allow us to track pathways and study functional connections that could never be analyzed through older experimental techniques".

    These reconstructions will assist scientists in gaining a better understanding of the evolution of the marsupial brain, a subject which remains poorly understood.

    We are fortunate, thanks to the foresight of collectors like Sir Colin MacKenzie, to have "wet" specimens of all of the thylacine's internal organs, together with the eviscerated carcases of five adults, preserved in museum and university collections around the world (Source: ITSD 5th Revision 2013).  These specimens provide us with us with an opportunity to study in detail the internal anatomy of a species that may now be on the brink of extinction.  With the advent of new diagnostic and imaging techniques, like those used by Berns and Ashwell, there is still much to be learnt about the anatomy of the thylacine.  It is somewhat ironic that we have learnt more about the thylacine from its physical remains, than we have from the living animal itself.

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