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.
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:
Characters. — Fur short, close, and crisp. General colour pale, finely grizzled, greyish-brown, with a faint yellowish or tawny tinge ; under-parts somewhat paler ; edges and bases of the ears, as well as a patch round each eye, nearly white ; hinder part of back marked with some sixteen blackish-brown transverse bands, descending in the region of the rump nearly to the knee. Soles of hind feet naked and coarsely granulated, without distinct pads. Tail with indistinct crests of hair on its upper and lower surfaces, with its tip blackish. Length of head and body about 44 inches; of tail 21 inches. It may be mentioned as a somewhat remarkable fact that traces of a rudimental pouch are found in the male Thylacine, and it should be added that such a rudimental pouch, which may be either permanent or transitory, has been detected in the males of several other Marsupials, most of which belong to the Polyprotodont division of the order.
I find it tantalisingly “real” to read contemporary accounts of an extinct species I would so love to see. What always gets me, though, is that a very similar account to this appears in the modern field guide I carry everywhere with me in Australia. Today, the most immediate information about the species is normally about its extinction, and its natural history comes later. In Lydekker’s guide, this information is absent as it is not yet true. And in the context of a modern fieldguide, it is included only in the most minimal way: “Status: Never common, now presumed extinct”. For me, the diminuation of its extinct status heightens the possibility that it’s not true.
As an aside, the male pouch Lydekker mentions is in fact not anatomically analogous to the female pouch. It’s believed to help in the regulation the temperature of the scrotum (Tasmania can be cold).
Habits. — Known among the colonists by the names of Native Wolf, Tiger, or Hyaena, the Thylacine was at one time an abundant animal in its native island. The damage which it inflicts on the flocks of the settlers has, however, given rise to a relentless war of extermination, which has resulted in the almost complete extinction of this, the largest of the Australasian Carnivores, in the more settled portions of the country…
…The Thylacine appears to be generally found among caverns and rocks in the deep and almost impenetrable glens in the neighbourhood of the highest mountains of Tasmania. Chiefly nocturnal in their habits, these animals are dull and inactive on the rare occasions when they show themselves by daylight, moving with a slow pace, and incessantly blinking from the un-accustomed light. Their cry appears to be limited to a dull guttural growl ; and it seems that, unlike Wolves, they never hunt in packs. Before the introduction of flocks into the country, the Thylacine doubtless subsisted mainly on the smaller Kangaroos and Wallabies, together with other Marsupials ; the first known specimen, captured by Harris, having portions of a spiny Anteater in its stomach. Sheep are, however, easier animals to kill than Kangaroos, and consequently in the more settled parts of the country the Thylacine soon took to sheep-killing. Its depredations on the flocks are always effected during the night-time ; and some idea of its ferocity may be obtained from a statement of Gunn to the effect that in the case of large old males even several dogs together will refuse to make an attack.
It’s often easy to look back at historic extinctions and suggest that people at the time didn’t know what was going on. In the case of the thylacine that certainly isn’t the case. A number of private bounties had been in place for dead thylacines since 1830 (which is pretty remarkable considering the first (small) European settlement was only established in 1803), and following the presentation of some decidedly questionable facts at parliament, the government sponsored a state-wide bounty in 1886. It is now known that the contention that thylacines impacted the sheep industry was inaccurate. Lydekker’s account of their decline, written eight years later, is disquietingly ominous considering what we know now.
Numbers continued to fall. The Tasmanian government eventually placed the thylacine under protective legislation 79 years ago – in 1936. It didn’t work – the last known individual died that very year.
Please join us in raising a glass today in cele-commemoration. Happy 79th Thylacine Day. Lest we forget.
Lydekker, Richard. 1896. A hand-book to the Marsupialia and Monotremata. London: E. Lloyd.
Menkhorst, Peter, and Frank Knight. 2004. A field guide to the mammals of Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Owen, David. 2004. Tasmanian tiger : the tragic tale of how the world lost its most mysterious predator. Baltimore, Md : Johns Hopkins University Pres.
Paddle, Robert. 2000. The Last Tasmanian Tiger. The History and Extinction of the Thylacine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.
*Just for accuracy my edition is from 1896.