An extinct Tasmanian tiger's skin which sat in a New Zealand drawer unrecognised for 76 years may help scientists to bring the species back to life.

The skin is believed to be one of the best-preserved specimens of the iconic wolf-like animal which Australian scientists hope to bring back to life by inserting its DNA into the cells of a related living species, most likely the smaller Tasmanian devil.

It was acquired in 1923 by a Whanganui collector, Archie Robertson, and sat in a drawer of his house with a Tasmanian devil skin until the family sold the property in 1999.

The family then lent the two skins, along with Robertson's stuffed bird collection, to the Kahutara Taxidermy Museum near Featherston, where four students from Victoria University recognised the distinctively striped Tasmanian tiger skin about a year ago.

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The carnivorous animal, also known as the thylacine, has been extinct since around 1936 and a database lists only 78 remaining skins worldwide.

The Whanganui skin has been sold to the National Museum of Australia, which said it would make an announcement "in the coming months" but has asked the family not to disclose the purchase price.

The Weekend Herald understands the figure paid was about $200,000.

Archie Robertson collected a private museum of stuffed animals and artefacts at his home near Whanganui. Photo / Supplied
Archie Robertson collected a private museum of stuffed animals and artefacts at his home near Whanganui. Photo / Supplied

Robertson's daughter, Janet Withers, 88, said it was "a record price" for a skin.

"It was a huge amount, in my book anyway it's a big amount, and I've divided it evenly between my four children," she said.

Janet Withers (centre) with David Thurrowgood, a Tasmanian conservator who arranged the sale of the Tasmanian tiger skin to the National Museum of Australia. Photo / Supplied
Janet Withers (centre) with David Thurrowgood, a Tasmanian conservator who arranged the sale of the Tasmanian tiger skin to the National Museum of Australia. Photo / Supplied

Kahutara Museum owner John McCosh said in 2002, 135,000 British pounds ($254,000) was paid for a rug quilted from thylacine pelts, but he believed the Whanganui skin was better preserved.

"Apparently there is the potential for looking at maybe cloning parts of it," he said.

Wairarapa taxidermist John McCosh looked after Archie Robertson's Tasmanian tiger skin, not knowing what it was until it was spotted by students a year ago. Photo / Lynda Feringa, Wairarapa Times-Age
Wairarapa taxidermist John McCosh looked after Archie Robertson's Tasmanian tiger skin, not knowing what it was until it was spotted by students a year ago. Photo / Lynda Feringa, Wairarapa Times-Age

Former Australian Museum director Mike Archer announced plans to recreate a living Tasmanian tiger 19 years ago using DNA from a pup that was preserved in 1866.

His successor shelved the project in 2005, but Archer is now involved in the Lazarus Project which aims to resurrect the southern gastric-brooding frog, a smaller animal which became extinct in the 1980s.

The Whanganui skin is believed to be one of the world's best preserved remaining specimens of the extinct thylacine. Photo / Supplied
The Whanganui skin is believed to be one of the world's best preserved remaining specimens of the extinct thylacine. Photo / Supplied

He told the Weekend Herald that his team had extracted DNA from the extinct frog and enabled it to reproduce itself.

"It's quite clear the extinct animal's DNA has been replicating itself, but we still don't have a tadpole. We think we understand what we have to do," he said.

"My whole goal was simply to get another animal across the line, you have to get over people's pessimism or innate scepticism. Then we can go back to the thylacine and others."

Janet Withers' Tasmanian tiger skin preserved the animal's distinctive tiger-like stripes. Photo / Supplied
Janet Withers' Tasmanian tiger skin preserved the animal's distinctive tiger-like stripes. Photo / Supplied

The project uses a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, extracting the nucleus from a cell of the extinct animal and swapping it into an egg of the nearest living relative.

Another team of scientists published the complete genome of the Tasmanian tiger in 2017, showing that it was 89 per cent the same as a Tasmanian devil but quite different from a wolf even though its head shape was virtually identical - showing that the two species evolved independently thousands of kilometres apart.

A New Zealand expert on ancient DNA, Otago Palaeogenetics Laboratory director Dr Nic Rawlence, said he opposed resurrecting extinct species because their spaces in the ecosystem had now been filled by others and research money should go to conserving existing species.

But Archer said somatic cell nuclear transfer was "another club in the bag" of tools that could be used to preserve endangered species, and the thylacine's extinction was so recent that no other species had taken its place.

"The habitats that it occupied in Tasmania are still there and are still intact. The animals that it ate are still there. There is no competitor," he said.

"If you can bring it back, you could put it back in the same habitat."

Tasmanian tiger

The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was Australia's top land predator until the dingo arrived about 3500 years ago. Photo / Getty
The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was Australia's top land predator until the dingo arrived about 3500 years ago. Photo / Getty

Scientific name

Thylacinus cynocephalus (thylacine).

Family: Marsupials. A relative of other Australian marsupials such as the kangaroo which all carry their young in pouches.

Size: About 60cm tall and 100-130cm long, weighing 20-30kg, slightly smaller than a grey wolf.

Markings: Dark stripes on its back, earning it the nickname "tiger".

History: Australia's top land predator until humans introduced the dingo about 3500 years ago. It became extinct on the mainland about 3200 years ago but survived in Tasmania until some time after the last captured animal died in Hobart Zoo in 1936.