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
"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
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".
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
(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
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):
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".
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
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.