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  • Happy 81st Thylacine Day: Thylacines were lucky to last as long as they did

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2017

    81 years ago today – the 7th September 1936 – the last known thylacine died, committing its species, indeed its entire family, to extinction.

    The last known living thylacine, 1933. (Image in the public domain, photographer unknown)

    It was locked out of the indoor section of its enclosure at a zoo in Hobart, and in the overnight chill of the Tasmanian winter it died of exposure. All that now remains of the then largest marsupial carnivore is in museums.

    In a sense it was lucky. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 283: The Eastern Quoll

    By Jack Ashby, on 17 March 2017

    Eastern quoll. LDUCZ-Z2307

    Eastern quoll. LDUCZ-Z2307

    Mongooses, ferrets, shrews, meerkats, otters, weasels and cats: These are animals that most people will be familiar with.

    Planigales, ningauis, kalutas, dunnarts, mulgaras and quolls: Not so much.

    Despite all being small mammals, strangely named, absurdly cute (the second set even more so than the first), objectively interesting in many ecological, behavioural and evolutionary ways, there seems to be a difference in the level of attention between these groups of animal. The latter are all Australian marsupials, and for undoubtedly complicated political, colonial and egotistical reasons embedded in the western psyche, they don’t get their fair share of the limelight*. This week’s Specimen of the Week is a tiny step in addressing that, with…

     

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    Eighty years extinct: today is Thylacine Day

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2016

    80 years ago today, on the 7th September 1936, the last known thylacine died. With it, an entire branch of the tree of life was cut off.

    The last living Thylacine in Beaumaris Zoo, 1933. (Image in the public domain, photographer unknown)

    Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers, were the last surviving member of a family of wolf-like marsupials that once hunted across all of Australia – the mainland as well as Tasmania. Regular readers of this blog (particularly these annual Thylacine Day posts, which we celebrate in the Grant Museum every year) will be familiar with the thylacine’s story, so I won’t go into detail here.

    A very deliberate extinction

    In short, thylacines were accused by Tasmania’s powerful farming lobby of predating sheep, and thereby damaging one of the island state’s principal economies. As a result, in 1830, they established a bounty scheme to encourage people to exterminate them. This policy was later adopted by the government, who (under pressure from the farmers) opted to pay for the bounty scheme themselves from 1888 to 1909. Inevitably over those decades the world’s (then) largest surviving marsupial carnivore’s numbers plummeted. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 218: The Sugar Glider

    By Jack Ashby, on 14 December 2015

    Preserved sugar glider. Petaurus breviceps. LDUCZ-Z2171

    Preserved sugar glider. Petaurus breviceps. LDUCZ-Z2171

    Climbing up things can be challenging, be it hills, cliffs, trees or stairs. Climbing down, however is arguably far more difficult – your eyes are further from your hand-and foot-holds, your body is pointed in the wrong direction and gravity combines with momentum to pull you down faster than you’d like.

    Due* to the many drawbacks of climbing downwards, gliding has evolved many times in the animal kingdom – there are many species which have flaps of skin which form parachutes to slow their descent. Their names often contain the word “flying”, but true flight requires flapping wings. This post is not about flying lemurs, flying frogs, flying dragons, flying snakes, the four-winged dinosaur Microraptor, or even flying squirrels. This week’s Specimen of the Week is the far more accurately named… (more…)

    Happy 79th Thylacine Day: What they knew in 1896

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2015

    79 years ago today , on the night of 7th of September 1936, the last known thylacine died of exposure, locked out of the indoor part of its enclosure in a Tasmanian zoo. This followed a government-sponsored cull based on pressure from the farming lobby, who incorrectly blamed the thylacine for the failure of the sheep industry. Happy Thylacine Day.

    Thylacine as depicted in Wood's Illustrated History (1872?). Engraved by W. Coleman, after Robert Kretschmer (1865)

    Thylacine as depicted in J.G. Wood’s The Illustrated Natural History (1872?). Engraved by W. Coleman, after Robert Kretschmer (1865)

    Here at the Grant Museum, as holders of a significant collection of specimens, we like to commemorate Thylacine Day. Here you can read how we have commemorated previous Thylacine Days – including the story of their extinction, and how it’s being echoed today in the UK’s unscientific badger cull (which restarted last Friday).

    I recently bought book from 1894* – A Handbook to the Marsupialia and Monotremata – a species by species account of what was then known about those groups by Richard Lydekker. Lydekker was a significant figure at the Natural History Museum, London, and incidentally was born about 100m from us here at UCL. Here is what he had to say about thylacines: (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 134

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2014

    For the past 133 weeks your weekly Specimen of the Week was lovingly delivered to you by our Curatorial Assistant Emma, who left the Grant Museum on Friday for an exciting new job. The show must go on, however, and from now on the rest of Team Grant will take it in turns to select and serve the treasures we find in our collections.

    As you may predict, it could be very tempting for someone with the power to select which Specimens of the Week are featured to highlight with bias the species they are most interested in (shark expert Emma gave you a ridiculous THIRTY-THREE blog posts featuring sharks in her reign). I frown upon such prejudice, and will stay well away from Australian mammals, my own field of zoological nerdery. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week Twenty-Nine

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 30 April 2012

    Scary Monkey: Week Twenty-NineA favourite in my household when I was growing up, these South-Pacific mammals are pleasant once you get to known them despite their bad reputation, only really fight when it comes to women or food, and don’t reach maturity until they are almost middle aged. This week’s specimen of the week is… (more…)

    Happy Thylacine Day: we haven’t learned – just look at the badgers

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2011

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    Picture this: an animal in a zoo dies of exposure one night because the door allowing it to return to the inside area of its enclosure was accidentally locked shut. It’s early Spring and southern Tasmania gets pretty cold – a wire and concrete cage is no place for a warm-blooded creature to be kept outside. Pretty awful, eh?

    Well that’s what happened to the last known thylacine 75 years ago today. The neglect itself would be shocking for any individual, let alone the sole known member of a species – the only remaining taxon in an entire family of animals. That day, a whole branch of the tree of life fell off. Well, in truth it was cut off. (more…)

    Where is the wild?

    By Jack Ashby, on 12 May 2011

    The wilderness can feel pretty wild, but this has been farmed for decades. Is it still natural?

    The wilderness can feel pretty wild, but this has been farmed for decades. Is it still natural?

    A delayed account of zoological fieldwork in Australia – Part 15

    For the past 14 weeks I’ve been writing the account of the five months I spent on ecological fieldwork in Outback Australia. This is the final post for that trip. I visited many of the world’s major ecosystem types – rainforest and desert, alpine and coral reef, moorland and woodland, heath and kelp forest, monsoonal woodland and swamp. I trapped, tracked, handled, spot-lit, sampled and photographed some of my most favourite animals. Not wanting to boast, but I had a frankly awesome time.

    A few weeks back I wrote about what makes an animal wild. To finish this series I’d like to ask a similar question of the landscape. Over the course of those five months I barely went inside, or even saw a building for that matter. Sleeping in a tent, cooking on a fire, drinking from a stream and washing in a bucket certainly should make you feel like you’re living relatively wild. At least with respect to my London life. (more…)

    Live from Tasmania, for now

    By Jack Ashby, on 8 April 2011

    This week I’ll take a break from my delayed account of last year’s fieldwork because I’m back in Tasmania out in the field with the University of Tasmania’s School of Zoology.

    Rejoining the project I was on last year, looking at the ecosystem effects of the massive crash in the Tasmanian devil population, this field trip is slightly less glamorous than trapping the devils, partly because they are practically extinct here up in the northeast of the island, where contagious cancer first appeared 15 years ago. What we’ve been doing is counting sultanas – it doesn’t actually involve setting eyes on a single animal (apart from millions of ants), but intriguing all the same.
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