(page 8)

Parental care:

    A letter sent by R. C. Gunn dated 19th January 1863, and later published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, provides some clues to the maternal care given by a female thylacine to her young on route to London Zoo:

    "The present one, in giving suck to its young used to lie down like a dog, the skin of the pouch being thrown back so as to admit of the young ones getting to the teats.  When alarmed the young ones crawled in with their backs downwards, the mother assisting by placing her rump against the side of her cage to give the cubs a purchase with their hind legs against the cage, and thus push themselves in.  They were so large when they left this, that when all in the pouch it hung down very low, and seemed almost a deformity".

    In another letter within the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, dated 1st March 1910, reference is made to comments on the thylacine's maternal instincts by Mrs. Roberts of the Beaumaris Zoo (SB) in Hobart.  Roberts states:

thylacine family - Beaumaris Zoo (1909)
A photograph taken in 1909 of a mother thylacine and her three young at the Beaumaris Zoo (Sandy Bay).  The pups were approximately eight months old at the time this image was taken.  A photo of this same group when somewhat older can be seen below.
    "The Thylacines had been in her possession for about eight months, and were tame and playful, and that the mother had nursed them until they were nearly as large as herself, although throughout that time they had taken raw meat...   The Thylacines had extremely strong maternal instincts".
thylacine family - Beaumaris Zoo (1910)
A mother thylacine (at centre) and her three young at the Beaumaris Zoo (SB).
Photo: Williamson - January 1910.  Courtesy: Archives Office of Tasmania NS463/5/2.
    A comment in the Adelaide Observer of the 26th November 1898 (p. 28) makes reference to the playful nature of thylacine pups resident at the zoo: 

    "There may now be seen a happy family of Tasmanian wolves - most extraordinary animals. In fact they are almost a freak of nature.  They consist of two adults and a mother and a family of whelps which are marvellously amusing". 

    Michael Sharland (1971), in his book "A Pocketful of Nature", notes the recollections of bushman Mr. W. J. Cotton:

    "Tiger puppies were very vocal, snarling and yapping very much like dog pups".  He also notes: "An interesting point about them was that their backbone and tail were not fused as in the adults".  He continues: "If given a piece of meat the pups would not fight over it, like dogs.  The one that grabbed it was allowed to eat it in peace.  One squeaky snarl from this one, and the others would retreat, sitting round him in a semi-circle, on their haunches". 

    Annis Hardcastle Knight (1903), when she visited the National Zoo in Washington DC in 1903 to see the thylacine mother and her pups, noted:

    "The little ones tried to engage her in their sport by jumping upon her back and rolling down her sides.  At first the little ones travelled around in their mother's pouch sometimes with their heads stuck out, as if they were curiously investigating the country as they went along.  They entered it also frequently when feeding and at such times there was always a scramble for first place".

    It is believed that the first generation of pups leave the family unit before the next generation of young leaves the pouch.  Accounts of multigenerational family units in the literature are extremely rare.  One account is given by Jordan (1987), when recollecting his 1929 capture of a female and her three cubs: "A female caught by me had its last year's cubs with her and [these] were also caught and she threw two mouse sized young from her pouch into the mud".  Another possible account is given in the Examiner newspaper of the 13th April 1929 (p. 6): "On one occasion a shepherd snared two tigers, a male and a female, and this led to the capture of six young ones, and as the bonus for each of these was 10s it was not a bad day's work".

Captive breeding:

    It appears that thylacines were only bred in captivity once - at the Melbourne Zoo in 1899 (Paddle 2000).  Regrettably, the keeper's records that may have made comment on the pairing and resulting offspring were discarded.  In this instance, the successful mating was between two unrelated thylacines.  Many of the thylacines that were displayed in zoos were siblings, and understandably, this may explain why breeding never occurred.  Zoo accommodation for thylacines during the 19th and early 20th century is another significant factor that contributed to the poor breeding record.  Barren pens with little or no privacy were certainly not conducive to a successful pairing.

restored carnivore cage - Melbourne Zoo
Restored carnivore cage at present-day Melbourne Zoo.  Thankfully, it now only houses a cardboard cut-out of a leopard.

    In a letter received from Mr. Ronald Gunn by David W. Mitchell, Secretary of the Zoological Society in London dated Launceston, 12th November 1850, the following comment occurs with respect to the society's menagerie: 

    "I feel little doubt but that the Thylacines will do well and very probably breed; the number of young is four at a litter - at least I have seen four in the female pouch, but there may often be fewer".

    Unfortunately, Mr. Gunn's enthusiasm for a successful pairing was never realised outside of Australia.  Juveniles seen in other zoos were inevitably those caught with their mother, and not offspring from a successful pairing within the confines of a zoo.

back to: Reproduction and Development (page 7) return to the section's introduction forward to: Behaviour (page 1)

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