Thylacines

Something a bit different this time – the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger was Australia’s largest predator, until being displaced and hunted to extinction in the early-mid 20th century. So none of these photos are of wild, living thylacines – they’d be headline news if they were – but are of stuffed ones in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, which has a section dedicated to them.

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They look very much like large dogs, but have two particularly distinguishing features (apart from the usual marsupial madness going on):

  • a stripy lower back – hence the name Tasmanian tiger; and
  • a huge gape when they open their mouths.

You can see both these things in this famous video of the last surviving thylacine, taken in Beaumaris Zoo, itself long-closed. I’m not going to go through the sad decline of this fantastic beast, suffice to say it’s demise ranks alongside the dodo, passenger pigeon and plenty more less iconic species as a stain on humankind’s record.

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The thylacine was always a shy, nocturnal creature. Tasmania is still a wild and remote sparsely populated island with vast, rugged wilderness areas – think Scotland but with a tenth of the population. The last known thylacine died less than 100 years ago. Maybe

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…maybe you wouldn’t be the first person to have that thought – these are posters from the 1970s. There have been various rewards for conclusive proof of a living thylacine, although none seem to be current now. In amongst the fascinating but wacky world of cryptozoology the thylacine uniquely stands out as actually having a pretty decent chance of actually existing.

Every year there are sightings – most recently around the Adelaide Hills. But that’s on the mainland you say – thylacines have been extinct on the mainland for around 2,000 years. However there are persistent rumours that breeding pairs were released in the early part of the 20th century in an attempt to save the animal, most likely at Wilson’s Prom.

A lot of people really want to find one, and range from serious scientific types to the more outlandish and just plain hopeful as you might imagine. The increasing quality of phone video might make a difference. I hope so because after you’ve seen the umpteenth blurry, shaky bit of footage of something that at best definitively has four legs you start to lose the will to live. The internet loves this kind of stuff, and for every argument against (and for!) their survival are innumerable counter-arguments, plus of course a good batch of hoaxers and Photoshoppery. It’s the age-old problem of how to prove the absence of something. See what you think:

My own personal view? Sadly I think they’re gone. I really, really want them to still be out there, somewhere. However the lack of physical evidence, especially any dead bodies and in particular roadkill having been found mean I think the chances of any surviving are just too small.

People have looked into cloning them, although I think the likelihood of this being successful seems increasingly slim. Quite apart from that I think the ethics here need considerable thought – if we can bring a species back from the dead, does that mean we don’t have to worry about causing extinction?

Maybe we should focus our energies instead on the thylacine’s memory and ensuring this doesn’t happen again. The last known thylacine died on 7 September 1936, and this date is now used as National Threatened Species Day. No matter what day it is, why not do something to help other threatened species?

See more Australian wildlife

 

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