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Finding and not finding the rarest museum specimens – Happy Australia Day

By Jack Ashby, on 26 January 2012

This is the tale of two non-discoveries. More accurately one non-discovery and one discovery of something not sought.

I often dream of thylacines and I often dream of the Grant Museum, but only once have I dreamt of both together, and that was this week which is apt as it’s Australia Day today. On this occasion in bed I jumped sharply into consciousness as it occurred to me that a specimen labelled as a brushtail possum baby could in fact be a mis-labelled thylacine. Possums, though wonderful creatures in the wild, are the ubiquitous pest of Australian towns, playing a similar role to racoons in the US. Thylacines, on the other hand, are a much celebrated (at least by us) extinct marsupial carnivore – the difference in rarity of the two in museum collections is stark. I developed an image in my mind of the specimen in question and convinced myself that it had been mis-identified. The image in my mind was in fact a mental blurring of the famous pup at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the specimen at the Grant Museum, pictured here.

Could it have been a thylacince?

Brushtail possum pouch young – very obviously not a thylacine (note the syndactylous digits – two claws from one “toe”)

Given that I am telling this story in a blog rather than international press, it’s probably apparent that the specimen in my dreams has turned out not to be a thylacine – it is in fact quite obviously a possum. Shame.

(Though as a side note I now remember that when I accessioned this specimen back in 2010 both specimens in the jar were labelled as a brushtail possum, but the one at the bottom is actually a four-eyed opossum from South America. It’s this kind of mis-labelling that gives me hope that there are sleeping wonders in the collection).

Which reminds me of another occasion when I thought I might have discovered an extinct Australian mammal… One day in our spirit store I found a specimen labelled “Conilurus sp.“. This is the genus that consists of the white-footed rabbit rat Conilurus albipes, extinct since 1862, and the brush-tailed rabbit rat C. penicillatus known only from two sites. So I took them back to the lab, got them out of the jar and worked on identifying which rabbit rat they were.

The two specimens labelled “Conilurus” out of the jar

It didn’t take long to realise they weren’t rabbit rats, which was disappointing. However as I worked through the characters I realised that they were Central Rock Rats Zyzomys pedunculatus – another Australian rarity. This species has been considered extinct twice. It was considered lost from 1960 to 1996 when it turned up again, and two years later was found in a campsite workshop and a few other sites nearby. All was looking good until huge wildfire spread throughout this area in 2002 and all subsequent trapping attempts failed to find any. It was once again on Australia’s long list of lost mammals. In 2010, however, a population was happily rediscovered by a friend of mine, now working for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.The two Central rock rats today

So, after the initial disappointment these two specimens I had found in the store did turn out to be extremely exciting – there are only 33 other museum specimens known (as of 2008).

Happy Australia Day to you all.

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