Exploration Life Science

Australian researchers launch search for living Thylacines in Queensland

On September 7, 1936, the last thylacine known to man was discovered dead in its enclosure at the now derelict Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. This last representative of the largest known carnivorous marsupial species of the modern era is presumed to have died of a combination of neglect and exposure; unable to access shelter during a scorching day and freezing night.

Its death marked what is believed to be the end of a gradual spiral toward extinction. Erosion of habitat by human indigenous and settler communities, competition with invasive canine species, disease epidemics, and a campaign of extermination in Tasmania (based on the presumption that the animal posed a significant risk to poultry and sheep spurred by fake news) all contributed to the end of the thylacines.

Since the death of the last recorded thylacine, sporadic sightings and dubious photographic evidence has emerged to support the very faint possibility that thylacines may have dodged extinction and are living quietly in isolated pockets around Tasmania and Australia.

Henry Burrell's manufactured thylacine predation photo
The cropped version of the infamous photo taken by Henry Burrell in 1921 that was used by local media to support the claim that thylacines were a pest. This published version (original uncropped version: here) excludes the enclosure that shows the photo was staged. There is also some evidence to suggest that the pictured thylacine was a mounted specimen and was not alive.

None of those claims have been substantiated and thylacines are remain officially listed as extinct.

However, recently reviewed accounts out of Queensland have spurred two biodiversity experts to launch an investigation in an undisclosed area on the Cape York Peninsula. The effort, involving 50 camera traps baited with lures, is being spearheaded by Dr. Sandra Abell and Dr. Bill Laurance of James Cook University.

The researchers are motivated by what they believe are two credible eyewitness accounts of animals resembling thylacines.

Thylacines at the Hobart Zoo in 1910
Thylacines at the Hobart Zoo in 1910. Image: National Archives of Australia.

The first comes from Bill Hobbs, a former tourism operator who recounted seeing animals consistent with thylacines while camping with a his dog and a friend in 1983. His dog woke him in the middle of the night, startled by something in the darkness, and he used his spotlight to survey the area.

All of a sudden I had these sets of red eyes looking at me and there was a male, a female and two pups — I got within 20 metres of them…These animals, I’ve never seen anything like them before in my life…They were dog-shaped — I had a shepherd with me so I certainly know what dogs are about — and in the spotlight I could see they were tan in colour and they had stripes on their sides.” (Source: ABA)

Dr. Laurance also had a conversation with former Queensland National Parks Service ranger Patrick Shears who provided anecdotal reports of thylacines in the area. Furthermore, he mentioned that the local Aboriginal population told him that they were familiar with a “dog-like creature – not a dingo – that’s often seen at night.” The Aboriginal communities refer to these creatures as “moonlight tigers.”

The last known thylacine in the Hobart Zoo in 1933
The last known thylacine in the Hobart Zoo in 1933. Image: National Archives of Australia.

Though the probability of thylacines persisting in such small numbers in isolated pockets of Australia (or the greater Australian bio-region) stretches the realm of what’s plausible, Dr. Laurance believes there is still value in the effort.

One of the foundations of science is a willingness to explore all manner of possibility, even if it seems implausible, and then follow the evidence. Besides, with a previously unknown population of critically endangered northern bettongs being found in the same region as this thylacine search, who knows what valuable biodiversity data will be collected incidentally by these cameras over the course of the investigation.

If they’re successful, this would be an extraordinary moment. While mankind would be able to breathe a small sigh of relief at an extinction near-miss of yet another animal, trying to resuscitate and support the species would require a huge amount of effort. It’s very likely that extraordinary conservation measures would need to be employed, similar to those employed here in the United States to save the California condor or the Island Fox.

Discovering thylacines in Queensland would be exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. The patient would be alive, but it would still be crashing.

Further Reading

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