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Surviving evidence suggests that it was a relatively shy, nocturnal creature with the general appearance of a medium-to-large-size dog, except for its stiff tail and abdominal pouch (reminiscent of a kangaroo) and dark transverse stripes that radiated from the top of its back, similar to those of a tiger.The thylacine was an apex predator, like the tigers and wolves of the Northern Hemisphere from which it obtained two of its common names.Europeans may have encountered it as far back as 1642 when Abel Tasman first arrived in Tasmania.

Several studies support the thylacine as being a basal member of the Dasyuromorphia and the Tasmanian devil as its closest living relative.

Research published in Genome Research in January 2009 suggests the numbat may be more basal than the devil.

The resulting cladogram follows below: Descriptions of the thylacine vary, as evidence is restricted to preserved joey specimens, fossil records, skins and skeletal remains, black and white photographs and film of the animal in captivity, and accounts from the field.

Recognition that the Australian marsupials were fundamentally different from the known mammal genera led to the establishment of the modern classification scheme, and in 1796, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire created the genus Dasyurus where he placed the thylacine in 1810.

To resolve the mixture of Greek and Latin nomenclature, the species name was altered to cynocephalus.

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