Who’s seen a Thylacine?

Only Aussies born more than 90 years ago can make a plausible claim to have seen a living thylacine: according to official records, the last of them died in Hobart Zoo in 1936. And, yet, thylacines still live! Few “extinct” animals cling so doggedly to public consciousness or attain cult status as the so-called Tasmanian tiger/wolf.

Thylacines feature on the Tasmanian coat of arms where two of them support a shield depicting their favorite prey (a sheep). They have been adopted by a pop group and are emblems on car registration plates. They are cartoon characters in children’s stories. They are mascots of the Tassie cricket team. They have a huge following on Facebook, and are pursued by a Tasmanian research team which is struggling to verify sightings of these shy animals. They are regularly seen or captured as fuzzy images looking like yellow labs darting into cover after the sun has gone down and cocktail hour is over. And where else, apart from Australia, would a government choose to humor motorists by erecting signs warning about extinct animals crossing the road?

Watch out for thylacines
Watch out for thylacines

I doubt thylacines would be so beloved today if they were not hated yesterday. Perhaps we feel guilty for having pushed a species over when it was already on the brink of extinction. A bounty of ₤1 per head was offered on behalf of 19th century farmers when thylacines were already rare. But who should blame a predator for supplementing its diet with mutton when hunters were thinning out its natural prey?  They also attracted attention for having the stripes of a tiger, the gape of a wolf, and the habits of a hyena. And they had cachet as genuine Australian natives with pouches like other marsupials, but unlike other species they were worn by both sexes, which is a rare example of political correctness among Aussie males.

Why else would thylacines attract attention? Every continent except Antarctica is inhabited by at least one cryptid species. There is the Sasquatch (Bigfoot) in North America, Mapinguari in South America, Yeren in China, Yowie in the Australian Outback, etc. As we tame the shrinking tracts of wilderness and clear jungles for our own wants, we are still wont to preserve some mysteries passed down by tradition and from folklore. We aspire to all knowledge of the universe and strive for all control of our environment, yet still harbor a love of mystery and curiosity about the unknown, for a world in which everything is known would indeed be dull. Ape-like critters on two feet fit the bill, and for the merest shard of plausibility they require a large territory for cryptids to hide in. But a small, highly-populated island like Britain does not have enough cover for them so they must keep their heads discreetly under water in Loch Ness. As for Tasmania, it still preserves old forestland, enough to conceal a critter the size of a dog, providing it never prowls after daybreak.

Thylacine-a portrait
Thylacine-a portrait

Thylacine hunting is a serious endeavor and a mighty passion for its followers. It stirs emotions like watching for ghosts or stalking for Bigfoot, but these animals are in a class of their own because they were never phantoms. More than a fading memory, evidence of their existence stands on all fours in museums today, and they may even hold out in tiny numbers. If Bactrian deer can come back from “extinction” in the wilds of Afghanistan, why not thylacines in Tasmania’s quiet forests or somewhere else?

Australia was originally part of a continental land mass combined with the huge island of New Guinea. The fauna and flora could come and go within the same ecozone, where they evolved differently to animals in mainland Asia north of the “Wallace Line.” New Guinea preserves descendants of a common marsupial stock, including some kinds of kangaroo that adapted to a life in trees. Perhaps thylacines still survive in its tropical forests. On my first trip to West Papua nearly twenty years ago, the western half of the island colonized by Indonesia and then called Irian Jaya, I met a man who was the provincial medical director and a keen naturalist. His brother in the Merauke area had recently seen in good light a critter looking like a thylacine. I didn’t know until recently that around the same time missionaries reported sightings by tribesmen in the Puncak Jaya region, although they had no idea it was a sensational claim. May the mystery endure, and thylacines hiding in the woods keep their heads down.

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By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Gosden

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