Australia's thylacine has been considered extinct for over 80 years, but alleged sightings, snapshots and even blurry footage have attracted so much attention over the decades that these missing marsupials have achieved almost mythical status. Scientists aren't typically in the habit of chasing such myths, but Australian biologists are now making plans to conduct a proper scientific search for the Tasmanian tiger.

The last known thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) died at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania on September 7, 1936.

These new plans weren't made on a whim. Earlier this month, ABC Far North recounted the tales of two men – former tourism operator Brian Hobbs and former Queensland National Parks ranger Patrick Shears – who claimed to have come across thylacines in northern Australia's Cape York Peninsula a few decades ago.

To many, the men's stories of dog-shaped creatures with stripes and red eyes might sound like standard tall tales of creature encounters, but the detail of their descriptions caught the attention of researchers Sandra Abell and Bill Laurance of James Cook University.

"Those sightings were from credible people with a lot of experience working in remote locations," Abell told me. "They were also very detailed descriptions, with one making observations multiple times within a night." What's more, unlike many other sightings, it seems these accounts couldn't easily be explained by the presence of possible thylacine lookalikes such as wild cats or dogs.

Abell and colleagues have already been conducting surveys in northern Australia to document endangered mammal species, so they decided to extend this work into some new areas, targeting the supposed whereabouts of these thylacine sightings (the precise locations are being kept confidential for the time being). They will be setting up a series of baited camera traps across the area within the next month or so.

This is far from the first time that scientists have mounted an expedition to find living thylacines. Since the disappearance of the species in the 1930s, several searches have been conducted – without success.

"There is currently only anecdotal, observational evidence [and] no real hard data," Abell said. "To be able to submit a true record, a clear time-stamped photograph and preferably DNA evidence is required."

This grainy footage, taken back in 2008, was released by the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia last year, and shared widely. Experts, however, were not convinced. View the full video here. Image: Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia

Finding an unexpected species wouldn't be a first for these researchers. Earlier this year, their camera surveys uncovered a previously unknown northern population of bettongs ("rat-kangaroos") in the region, a discovery that offers some much-needed renewed hope for the future of this endangered species.

Could the same sort of serendipitous discovery happen with the thylacine? There are plenty of reasons for doubt: there hasn't been an official record in almost a century, and the pressures that drove the animals to extinction – disease, competition from introduced species and habitat change – haven't necessarily improved much. What's more, the last known home of wild thylacines was Tasmania, which lies on the opposite side of the continent from the Cape York search.

The researchers are naturally cautious about jumping to conclusions. "I will remain skeptical but with an open mind until I have that real evidence at hand," Abell said.

Still, even if months of hard work go by with no thylacine photos to show for it, the survey will be far from a waste. Abell is interested in a variety of Australian mammals beyond just the (suspected) extinct ones. She explains that these extra cameras will allow the team to better understand which mammalian predators – native and feral – inhabit the region. She even plans to use these new survey sites to try out some different baiting methods.

"This media interest helps us raise awareness for the Australian mammals that are in decline and already endangered and helps us get data that can possibly solve this problem," Abell added. "If we happen to find thylacines or other new species in the process that would be an amazing bonus."