No audio recordings
of thylacine vocalisation are known to exist, so our limited knowledge
of this subject is based on first-hand historical accounts of bushmen,
zoo staff, and a small number of naturalists. From their recollections,
thylacine vocalisation appears to serve both as a structured warning to
any potential aggressor, as well as a means of social interaction between
Dr. Eric Guiler (1958),
Tasmania's leading authority on the thylacine, stated in the Australian
"When hunting thylacines make a coughing, barking noise,
a low growl when irritated (probably a warning) and a whining noise like
that of a puppy. The latter sound is perhaps a method of communication
Ronald Campbell Gunn,
in a letter to the Zoological Society dated 14th May 1850, notes when referring
to a male thylacine on route to London Zoo: "The male thylacine made
a hissing sound as any one passed his cage".
Gould (1804-1881), the famous naturalist and ornithological
illustrator, made the following comment on the vocalisation of a thylacine
at the London Zoo in his book "The Mammals of Australia" (Gould
"In confinement it
is excessively shy, and on being observed dashes and leaps about its cage
in the most violent manner, uttering a short guttural cry resembling a
bark, but whether this sound is also emitted in a state of nature, has
not been observed".
The 1913 guide to the
London Zoo (p. 93), states that the thylacine has a "wheezing cry".
J. West (1852), in his
account of thylacine hunting behaviour, notes that they occasionally utter
low smothered bark".
The Circular Head Chronicle
of the 6th October 1937 (p. 3) states that the thylacine has a "sharp
bark like a pup of 7 or 8 weeks old".
Gould, circa 1860. Source: University of Sydney Library.
| William George Fitzgerald
(1876-1965), a prospector, made the following comments on the vocal abilities
of the thylacine (Fitzgerald 2011):
"The tiger's growl
is a soft low whistle......When hunting, the tiger gives an occasional
yelp similar to that of the Australian Dingo on the chase, but that is
about their only similarity. When calling its mate, the tiger gives
a blood curdling squeal, similar to the loud neighing of a horse".
The Australian naturalist Michael Sharland (1971) notes in his book "A
Pocketful of Nature" the recollections of a Mr. W. J. Cotton, in which
he states: "Tiger puppies were very vocal, snarling and yapping very
much like dog pups".
Reid, in the Mercury of the 24th October 1968 states:
"I read with interest 'Peregrine's remarks on the Tasmanian Tiger.
Contrary to his observation that the animal was voiceless I can assure
those interested that it was not without a voice.
The Tiger has a deep throated bark. This is repeated four or five
times in quick succession. It seems to be only employed when the
animal is agitated and then only at night. It could be also described
as being like a deep short cough.
The only time we heard it at the zoo was when the animals had been left
shut out from their sleeping quarters, and my father or I would go down
and let them in. They would be in a sort of panic at not being able
to get in and uttering this 'coughing bark' as they ran round. once the
door was opened they became quite calm again.
'Peregrine' says that bushmen have argued about this matter. So,
as I have both seen and heard them barking, I would be quite pleased to
speak with anyone who thinks that they may have heard one lately.
ALISON REID. New Town".
naturalist Graham Renshaw made a number of observations on a thylacine
he had seen in captivity at the London Zoo in his article "The Thylacine",
published in the Journal of the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna
of the Empire. With respect to its vocal ability, Renshaw (1938)
"It never uttered any sound, though the keeper said it would
hiss or grunt if disturbed".
Albert Le Souëf
(1926) discussed the vocalisation of Australian marsupials in the Proceedings
of the Zoological Society of London, arguing that terrestrial
marsupial carnivores were somewhat inferior to their placental counterparts,
and that this inferiority was reflected in their vocalisation. He
stated that: "The voice of all the carnivorous marsupials was very primitive
in character" and with specific reference to the thylacine, he states:
Marsupial Wolf or Thylacine can only express itself by a coughing sound".
The editor of the Proceedings noted at the foot of the page: "This is
not our experience here (London Zoo); the thylacine utters a prolonged
and very loud, undulating cry".
It is doubtful that anyone who has heard the cry of the Tasmanian devil
(Sarcophilus harrisii) could ever accuse the terrestrial marsupial
carnivores of being restricted in their vocalisations.
The thylacine has at
least six distinct vocalisations. The Tasmanian devil by comparison,
has a more expansive repertoire of sounds, with at least eleven types of
The following table
illustrates the types of thylacine vocalisation, together with their appropriate
degree of threat and a brief explanation as to possible meaning.
(ah ah ah ah)
(social interaction with
respect to identification and hunting)
(social contact with
respect to family member and scent trailing)
to moderate-grade threat
(moderate to high-grade
threat depending upon intensity)
warning or precursor to aggression
threat level, and perceived meaning. Source: Thylacine Museum.
| Most of the known thylacine
vocalisations are those that were observed in captive animals, with the
notable exception of the "snuffle", or forced aspiration. This in
itself is not surprising, as this sound is employed during hunting, when
the thylacine is following a scent trail.
The Daily Telegraph
of the 10th September 1927 (p. 8) in an article entitled "Sounds of
the exception of the thylacine or Tasmanian 'wolf',' and the Tasmanian
'devil,' have the reputation of being silent creatures, and some Australian
naturalists have even refused loud voices to these two notorious cases.
But the 'wolf' at any time utters a long howl, rising and falling in an
excessively wild and melancholy fashion, but quite unlike the howl of dogs
or wolves... ...The herbivorous marsupials are usually silent, and
kangaroos, even when they are fighting or making love, do not give voice.
But a kangaroo, when frightened, as, for instance, when it is being held
to be given an anesthetic, howls as loudly and much in the same fashion
as the thylacine - an interesting example of the clues to affinity which
might be got from a comparative study of the voice".
When David Fleay was
filming the last
captive thylacine at the Beaumaris Zoo (QD), it is on record
that the animal was hissing with its mouth wide open prior to Fleay receiving
a bite to his buttock. This is a good example of a high-level threat
warning being ignored, ultimately at a cost to Dr. Fleay's dignity.
Comparative threat warnings
of the thylacine, Tasmanian devil and quoll. Note: In all cases,
the mouth is opened wide, displaying the teeth to the opposition; ears
are laid back, and the eyes are narrowed.
Annis Hardcastle Knight
(1903), on a visit to see the thylacine mother and pups thylacine
mother and pups at the US National Zoo (Washington, DC) in 1903,
"The call is a peculiar
coughing sound, which, until recognised as a note of affection, gave the
keepers grave concern regarding the condition of her lungs. The sound
was easily understood when it was observed that the mother in giving vent
to it, was immediately answered by her cubs. Often when sleeping
she will rouse for a moment, and after making this peculiar cry, listen
expectantly until she hears the diminutive counterpart, whereupon she will
let fall her head and rest content".
From what little we
can deduce from historical accounts, it appears that thylacine vocalizations,
although limited to around five sounds, are used frequently in social interactions,
particularly hunting and maternal care.
The Queenslander newspaper
of the 25th February 1932 (p. 43) notes:
"The Tasmanian wolf
does not bark like an ordinary dog or dingo, but gives a succession of
short wheezing coughs".
The Cairns Post of the
19th May 1938 (p. 11) notes:
"This animal makes
a husky noise, and repeatedly utters a coughing bark when excited or being
The West Australian
of the 24th December 1948 (p. 15) notes:
"The cry is a distinctly
marsupial one, but with a difference of its own, being a flat husky cough
or croak rapidly repeated".
The Advertiser (Adelaide)
of the 21st September 1929 (p. 21) notes:
"It has a kind of
wheezy bark, the breath being drawn in".