Does the Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) Still Exist?
By Branden Holmes
"[N]obody was very interested in them, they just sort of gave a passing glance"
"Everybody today is interested in thylacines; all the queries in the world about it. But in those days when we had them, and I think they were quite plentiful back in the bush, nobody was the slightest bit interested in them. They just walked past the thylacine."
(Alison Reid, interview for the 1996 documentary 'The Tasmanian Tiger')
Sadly it has now been more than 80 years since the last known thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger) died in the Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, on the 7th of September, 1936 (Guiler, 1985). Just prior to its death it shared the sparse premises with the rest of the zoo's few remaining carnivores as permanent closure loomed heavily over the place (Owen, 2003). Even though a concrete jungle is no place for a tiger. On that fateful night it was accidentally locked out of its sleeping quarters in the freezing Tasmanian weather, succumbing sometime during the night, alone and persecuted one final time. The tragic fate of it's species as a whole mirrored in that single extinction event. Gone, but hopefully never ever forgotten!
For a species which traded hands live for such large sums of money not long before, it is hugely ironic (and above all sad) that possibly the last of its kind was treated so inhumanely. Abandoned to the degree that even it's identity is still something of a mystery to this day. Although we may be getting closer to solving it, especially if that fabled body turns up in a garage sale like another supposed specimen. The myth that it was a male called 'Benjamin' was perpetuated by a Mr Frank Darby who was interviewed by Graham Pizzey for a 1968 newspaper article (Pizzey, 1968), which finally gave a name to the tragedy. But Robbert Paddle has shown that there are no records to suggest that a Mr. Darby ever cared for that last tiger, and that his testimony is questionable in other areas too (Paddle, 2000). Although Paddle himself is guilty of questionable research (see below), and so there might yet be some truth to the Benjamin label after all.
It was the lack of evidence for its masculinity, including the lack of visible testes in remaining footage of the animal, as well as its profile, which Paddle used to come to the conclusion that the animal was in fact a mature female (Ibid.). However, his findings have more recently been turned upside down by a remarkable finding. Stephen Sleightholme published a paper a few years ago which showed that in fact the testes of the individual were visible in a single frame of footage (Sleightholme, 2011). But the gender of that last thylacine confirmed, it still leaves open the question of which male it was that outlived virtually all of its kind. Elias Churchill is often credited with capturing the last wild animal, in the Florentine Valley in 1933, from where it was taken by rail to the Hobart Zoo to live out the species' days. However, no primary source for this claim is known to the present author, and Mr. Churchill never seems to have claimed such himself (e.g. Anonymous, 1964).
In a recent paper, Sleightholme & Campbell (2014) cite several sources, including Eric Guiler's interview with Churchill in 1969, as evincing a sort of agreement amongst expert authors that Churchill did indeed capture 'Benjamin'. Which includes the fact that the specimen was snared. They go on to publish their findings that the last captive thylacine, whether it was the Florentine specimen or not, was depicted in three films taken at roughly the same time. A bittersweet discovery due in part to the same scarring pattern shared by the three filmed thylacines, evidently caused by a snare. Thus adding to the case that the last captive animal was indeed the putative Churchill specimen. Thus overturning previous thought, namely that two of the films were taken much earlier and probably depicted a different animal. Apparently a now lost film taken at the Melbourne Zoo in 1928 once existed, just to compound the loss even further.
But even if the Florentine Valley specimen was male, and the last captive individual, was it really the last individual of its kind on Earth? The 'endling' as last members of populations are increasingly being referred to in conservation biology. We cannot be sure since there is no sufficient post-1936 evidence of the species, although it is inconceivable to some to suggest that it is extinct at all (as we shall see). Unless of course the species is rediscovered in the future, which we all, sceptics and believers alike hope for. After all Tasmania is a large island, the 26th largest in the world, such that a handful of thylacines could easily have evaded science until 1936 or later. Indeed, at least two expeditions mounted in the years immediately after the last captive death found indirect evidence of its survival in the form of footprints (Fleming, 1938). While Sleightholme & Campbell (2016) document a significant number of reports of the species in the wild until 1939.
So it seems quite likely that the species lingered on until the very late 1930's or the early 1940's. Or possibly even the 1950's. Given that reported sightings after 1936, though much less so today, all sadly unconfirmed, were made by those quite familiar with the species. Carlson et al. (2018) found the most probable date of extinction to be 1940, with their different models varying between 1936 and 1956. While (Sleightholme & Campbell, 2016) arrived at a far more positive result, finding that the species "was extant throughout the 1940s, and possibly beyond". In part based upon a much more thorough dataset, and thus more likely to reflect the actual species' status. But what happened to the species after this?
Had the species passed below the viability threshold and into functional extinction? Or did the cessation of persecution, in part due to their rarity, allow them to rebound in numbers and repopulate large tracts of their former marsupial haunt, to the point where they are regularly sighted today? With the exception of an important qualification given below, the evidence suggests that it became extinct sometime before or during the Second World War (1939-1945). Some would insist upon keeping a more open mind, noting the large number of cases where populations have gone undetected for long periods, as well as the literally thousands of eyewitness reports which atest to its continued existence. The rediscovery of many species over the last few decades highlights the ability of animals to go undetected for long periods of time, including some here in Australia. However, all of those cases are fundamentally different from the present one in several respects, not least because of the high human population and lack of genetic diversity that the species exhibited even pre-1936 (White et al. 2018).
That is not to say that we can completely dismiss the idea of its survival as pure fantasy, relegated to fictional accounts like The Hunter, and to 'investigate' possible sightings with a closed mind. Far from it. There is still plenty of suitable habitat left, more than large enough to sustain a viable population. And the cessation of the fur trade in Tasmania's marsupials has meant that their prey species have recovered their numbers. But given these positive reversals, which are certainly conducive to the flourishing of a population of thylacines, we still do not encounter the species today. Although it was universally agreed to be a retiring species pre-1936 it was never, even at the putative point of extinction, so evasive as to go incontrovertibly unrecorded for many decades. That the species has not been recorded for such a long time is much better explained by its actual absence from the environment than the suggestion that it is merely elusive.
That the case for its extinction must lie with the lack of a body, as much suitable habitat still remains both in Tasmania and on the mainland (i.e. Australia and New Guinea), does not diminish its strength very much. The species was elusive in life, but not invisible. It was often sighted, clearly trapped or snared with relative ease. And yet thousands of snares and traps set since 1936 have failed to catch a single individual. If the species really were as numerous as the reported sightings suggest then at least one individual would have been brought to light by science. If the species does continue to exist, it is far more probable that virtually all of the sightings made each year since 1936 are wrong, and that its last stronghold is in the densest and remotest parts of Tasmania's wilderness, than that it only evades science.
During the Late Pleistocene and into the mid-Holocene, the thylacine was widely dispersed over mainland Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania. It was towards the end of that period, between about 9,000 to 14,000 years ago, that rising sea levels separated Sahul (or Greater Australia) into the three familiar land masses. On New Guinea a Holocene age mandible was found in 1960 (van Deusen, 1963), with further remains reported since (e.g. Mountain, 1990,1991), which extend the species' survival until about 4,500yBP. Suprisingly, there doesn't seem to be any Late Pleistocene records of the species there, or at least none known to the present author. A Tertiary age (viz. Pliocene) record of the genus almost certainly refers to a different species (Plane, 1976). The reason for this seeming taphonomic bias might be attributable, at least in part, to the relative lack of palaeontological excavations. New Guinea remains a dangerous place to visit even today.
Long before Europeans ever visited Australia, then joined to both Tasmania and New Guinea (and known collectively as Sahul or Greater Australia), the thylacine roamed the land hunting its prey. By around 40,000 years ago the vast majority of the megafauna had become extinct, with the exception of Zygomaturus (Westaway et al., 2017), thus allowing the thylacine some evolutionary breathing space. Although fossils have been found from just about every region which was once part of Sahul, and so seems to have survived just fine even in the midst of much larger predators like Megalania (a 6 metre-long goanna), Meiolania (horned turtle) and Thylacoleo (marsupial 'lion'). This gives us some idea of the adaptability of the species. However, apart from now discredited early colonial records of the species from South Australia, doubtfully recent cave paintings, and controversial dating of a Thylacine mummy (not to mention the thousands of post-1936 sightings already alluded to), European man has only encountered the species in Tasmania. To which it has seemingly been confined for the last few thousand years. The youngest fossils from mainland Australia date to around 3,030 yBP (source).
The evidence for late survival on the mainland
Robbert Paddle, author of The Last Tasmanian Tiger, believes that the species persisted in South Australia until the 1830's, based upon both Aboriginal and European accounts of the species there (Paddle, 2000: 22-23). But even if we accept Paddle's thesis, the species died out on the mainland c.175 years ago. Apart from bones and fossils, there was one remarkable find of an intact Thylacine mummy, complete with eyeball and tongue, from the Nullabor plain of Western Australia (Lowry & Lowry, 1967; Partridge, 1967; Ingram, 1969; Lowry & Merrilees, 1969). The dating of this specimen has been something of a controversy, with some suggesting that the state of preservation is far too good for it to have been dead for more than a few years prior to its discovery (Douglas, 1990). However, the scientific consensus is that the conditions present where the mummy was found are conducive to long-term preservation of intact tissues due to a lack of bacteria in the ultra-dry conditions on the cave floor. Aboriginal cave paintings of putative Thylacines have also been discovered, some potentially being far more recent than it is generally accepted and thus hinting at its possible survival much closer to European colonisation on the mainland (Tacon et al. 2011). The Thylacine is therefore probably the only recently extinct animal depicted in paintings on the mainland, as all others either became extinct long before rock painting started or were seemingly not significant enough in the lives of the aboriginals to warrant depiction in the first place1.
None of these three lines of evidence has gained widespread acceptance amongst scientists, leading to the default view that the species only survived into historic times on Tasmania. But New Guinea is arguably as good a candidate as Tasmania for harbouring a remant population of Thylacines. Apart from (van Deusen, 1963) and more recent reports of subfossil material (e.g. Mountain, 1991), the (past) existence of Thylacines in New Guinea has largely been ignored. A trend which has been mirrored in the locations chosen for expeditions to search for the species. Apart from some post-1990 searches by cryptozoologists the status of the Thylacine in New Guinea seems to have been evaluated as 'extinct' by the IUCN when it declared the species globally extinct. But upon what basis this decision was reached is unclear. As I have already said, dedicated searches for the animal in New Guinea basically post-date the extinction declaration, and even if there are some pre-1986 searches that I am not aware of, none of this seems to have been factored in.
And so it is within the context of this default view that the species only persisted into historic times in Tasmanian that I state my belief that the species is extinct (in Australia). Globally, however, its conservation status cannot be evaluated at this time since the IUCN's benchmark criteria for declaring a species extinct have clearly not been met yet. And that lack of data cuts both ways. So I shall concentrate on the species' conservation status in Australia for the rest of this article, while leaving its status in New Guinea aside.
Neil Waters: the man who cried Tasmanian wolf?
Within the last year the possibility that the thylacine still survives on mainland Australia has been thrust into the media spotlight by one man in particluar. Neil Waters has managed to obtain and then release numerous videos and photographs purporting to show mainland thylacines. However, all of the evidence offered to date by Mr Waters is completely insufficient to substantiate his numerous claims. In almost all cases the animals depicted are clearly foxes, identifiable even given the blurry nature of the images. Mr Waters strongly denies these identifications, pointing out what he believes are atypical features such as the morphology and position (relative to the body) of the tail, that discount the animals being foxes. However, every single feature that he deems unfoxlike can be found, both in isolation and in combination, unequivocally exemplified by foxes. Such large claims backed up by such little evidence does nothing to bolster the credibility of the mainland thylacine sighting reports that many others have sincerely made. If anything they help to foster greater initial scepticism of claims of mainland thylacine reports, thus damaging the credibility of witnesses through no fault of their own.
Even Mr Waters is unable to escape the fox-like nature of the animals in his videos, even though he thinks that they are not in fact foxes. In order to explain the seeming similarities to foxes and the dissimilarities to Tasmanian thylacines, he invokes a new subspecies or variety of thylacine that has converged phenotypically with foxes. The problem with this hypothesis is that firstly, it is unnecessary, and secondly, it is unsupported. Foxes have only existed on the mainland for less than 200 years, but the fox-like thylacine variety that Waters believes exists, must have done so for thousands of years before European contact. Yet although we have many thylacine fossils from the mainland they all match the morphology of the Tasmanian variety, and none of them match the foxy thylacine. Mr Waters needs to offer an explanation for the extreme taphonomic bias that has occurred. Because surely Mr Waters doesn't think that the foxy thylacines are so conscious of leaving no evidence of their existence that they would purposefully die where their remains are sure not to be preserved. After all it would extraordinarily vain of the creatures to go to such lengths only to spite themselves by being happy to be photographed and videoed, though only for footage that they know will go through the hands of Mr Waters.
Mr Waters also needs to explain why we should believe that the fox-like animals are thylacines and not some other non-fox animal, or foxes which have evolved. After all he admits that the animals are more fox-like than thylacine-like. He just arbitrarily concludes that they are thylacines. Since his hypothesis is not backed up by palaeontological precedents in the form of fossils, we have just as much credibility if we suppose that they are an entirely new species, wholly unrelated to thylacines. Such a hypothesis has the same amount of evidence going for it as foxy thylacines do so why does he reject it? Since he believes that the foxy thylacines could be a hybrid between thylacines and some other animal we have just as much of a right to suppose that they represent the hybridisation of kangaroos and some other animal, hence the "stiff tail" that he goes on about so much. It does not follow from the fact that the animals are not foxes (they are) that they are therefore thylacines. You cannot derive a positive identification from a negative one unless there were only two options to begin with (there weren't). It follows from the fact that the light switch in the room in which I am writing is not in the 'on' position that therefore it is in the 'off' position (barring the possibility that it is stuck in between, as it sometimes is). But I cannot infer from the fact that the die (plural: dice) did not land on a '1' that therefore it landed on a '5', since there are four other live possibilities. To determine what number the die landed on I need to actually examine the die.
Island of the Tiger
Both the Thylacine and the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) were putatively confined to Tasmania when European explorers came ashore on its beaches2. The world's largest marsupial carnivores, they were both feared and resented. Early European records suggest that both species had a significant psychological imapct upon the early settlers, who invariably saw them as enemies. One need only look at the names bestowed upon them to see this: hyaena wolf and native devil, to give a single example of each, respectively. And it wasn't long, a mere few decades, before the false persecution that would ultimately lead to the Thylacines extinction began. Accused by many of slaughtering whole herds of sheep wantonly, most likely to shift blame away from bad farming practices, colonial theft, terrible weather conditions and the scourge of wild dogs, archival records (Paddle, 2000), as well as the known skull mechanics of the Thylacine (Attard et al. 2011) have now called these accusations into serious question.
Official and non-Government bounties, the sale and export of live animals, trapping, general persecution, and possibly disease (Paddle, 2012), all took their toll on the Thylacine population. Nobody knows how many Thylacines there were before the persecution began, although the shyness and reclusiveness of the animal, especially for a top carnivore, suggests that aboriginal hunting forced the animal to avoid humans at all costs. All of this suggests that firstly, the island wasn't at carrying capacity prior to European contact, and that an excessively large number of Thylacines were killed or trapped, potentially enough to render the species extinct, closely mirroring the fate of the Tasmanian aboriginals. The last bounty alone, which ran from 1888 to 1911, was responsible for the deaths of 2184 animals (2040 adults and 144 juveniles).
The last bounty for the Thylacine was a huge success as far as bounties go. It had the desired effect of largely exterminating the species because in the last three years of the bounty (1910-12) no Thylacines were handed in to claim the reward on offer. Much of this was clearly due directly to the rarity of the species and therefore the success of the bounty scheme up until that time, but it was also secondarily because the rarity of the species had driven up the price of live animals to astronomical prices. The amount commanded by a live Thylacine was many times that of a dead animal by this time, motivation enough to try and secure live Thylacinus for export to zoos around the world. Indeed the London Zoo paid £150 for the last Thylacine it ever displayed, a grossly disproportionate amount of money. And sadly and ironically, much more than what the Florentine Valley specimen, the last wild Thylacine on record, traded hands for.
Post-1933 sightings and reports
In the aftermath of the death of 'Benjamin' a number of expeditions were commenced to try and find any remaining Thylacines, to confirm that the species still existed if nothing else, in part to ease the collective Tasmanian conscience. However, the post-1936 sightings so often referred to should actually be post-1933 since that is the date when the last known wild Thylacine was captured (Pearse, 1976). Although the species is known to have survived for a further three years in captivity it was possibly extirpated from the wild by then. Thus, any wild sighting after 1933 should be regarded as unconfirmed, and should be the starting date of any cryptozoological investigation or research project. But a further paradox to the Thylacine story is that sightings of the Thylacine may be more numerous on the mainland than in Tasmania, to which all known populations have been confined in the recent past. Thus a mainland researcher may be said to have a better chance of rediscovering the species than a Tasmanian-based cryptozoologist!
The cryptozoological body known as ARFRA, or the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association, claims to have 3,800 mainland sightings of the Thylacine in its database, as well as evidence of "predation, vocalisations and prints". As far as I am aware this is more than all of the reports made in Tasmania combined over the same period of time (assuming that the ARFRA reports were all made post-1933). For example, Owen (2003: 191) mentions "over a thousand" sightings in Tasmania from 1936-2003, less than 1/3 the number of that in the ARFRA database. Given the secrecy of ARFRA, some of it justified and some of it needlessly so, it is hard to know how much overlap there is between the reports in the ARFRA database and those of independent Thylacine researchers/investigators, many gleaned from newspaper clippings no doubt. Perhaps there is a complete overlap of reports, which would mean that the database with the largest number of sightings from the mainland, which would seem to be ARFRA's, represents all sightings from the mainland to date. However, if there is no overlap whatsoever then the number of mainland sightings is a product of all mainland sightings databases combined, on top of those sightings which have gone unreported.
Since ARFRA is mainly based in the eastern states of mainland Australia, the 203 reports from Western Australia analysed by (Heberle, 2004) probably represent sightings which are not in the ARFRA database. This would bring the total number of mainland sightings to over 4,000, which is a huge number, especially if the species no longer exists. Likewise many other private investigators have collected reports mostly not known to others until published (e.g. Heath, 2014). And then there are all those people who have had sightings but have not come forward at all to report what they have seen, and probably outweigh those who have by 2:1. Thus quantifying the extent of the phenomenon is virtually impossible unless one is content with rough estimations. As well as all of the reports, however, is more tangible evidence of their presence: hair samples, scats, footprints and photographic and video evidence, which we shall examine a bit later. So it seems that we do indeed have a zoological mystery upon our hands.
Whenever somebody claims to have seen a cryptid such as the Thylacine there are three distinct possibilities regarding their sighting: firstly, they may be lying. Secondly, they may have misidentified a known animal within (or outside) its known distribution. And lastly, they actually saw what they claim to have seen. In my experience, as well as that of many others, most people who claim to have seen anything out of the ordinary are telling the truth. And I see no reason to think that anything is inherently different with the case of the Thylacine. The question then is, what did they actually see? Did they really see a Thylacine, or have they accidentally misidentified an extant animal? I would submit to the reader that the latter is the case in most circumstances, and that the rest of the time deliberate hoaxes are to blame.
But what could they be seeing? The stripes of the Thylacine are its most distinguishing feature, and in low light conditions without seeing those stripes one would be uncertain of what one saw, generally speaking, since they cover such a large proportion of the body that only its gait would give away its identification. One would simply be oft to described it as a quadruped of roughly dog-like conformation, albeit with broken back legs. However, a number of people have told of seeing stripeless Thylacines, or alternative colouration patterns. As far as I am aware no stripeless Thylacine was ever documented in Tasmania during 1805-1936, and the mummy from Thylacine Hole on the Nullarbor is certainly striped as any visitor to the Western Australian Museum (WAM) can attest to. They seem only to have been reported by modern observers on the mainland, and therefore that is good enough of a reason to dismiss them as false reports in my opinion.
But of the many reports which mention stripes, even when the striping does not conform to known Thylacine standards (e.g. starting much lower down the back than is generally recognized), no other native animal seems to exhibit such a strange combination of markings apart from the superficial resemblance to the Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus). And with the exception of the Zebra duiker (Cephalophus zebra), indeed no other animal in the world does which could be mistaken for it. How then are we to account for all of the various sightings which have been made, most seemingly by honest people who are at least semi-competent observers? The answer must lie mainly with domestic dogs, who exhibit various colouration patterns which can under certain circumstances strike the observer as those of a Thylacine. Especially brindle-coloured greyhounds displaying pseudo-stripes, whose body conformation is remarkably similar to that of the Thylacine, most notably the profile of the skinny head. Take for example the 'Thylacine' sighting made by former Greens leader Dr Robert "Bob" Brown:
"Driving home to the Launceston suburb of Ravenswood one evening after his GP rounds, Brown saw a 'Thylacine'. So astonished was he that he insisted [Jeremy] Griffith return to the area with him immediately. Together, they found the animal: 'It was a greyhound with four stripes across its back'." (Owen, 2003: 194)
That people, even initial skeptics like Brown, could regularly sight 'thylacines' is not so hard to believe when we consider that such sightings are more often than not mere glimpses, and not studious observations. However, some sightings are harder to dismiss than others. Take that of Hans Naarding in 1982, often described as the best sighting since 1936:
"I had gone to sleep in the back of my vehicle which was parked at a road junction in a remote forested area in the north-west of the State. It was raining heavily. At 2 a.m. I awoke and, out of habit, scanned the surrounds with a spotlight. As I swept the light-beam around, it came to rest on a large thylacine, standing side-on some six to seven metres distant. My camera bag was out of immediate reach so I decided to examine the animal carefully before risking movement. It was an adult male in excellent condition with 12 black stripes on a sandy coat. Eye reflection was pale yellow. It moved only once, opening its jaws and showing its teeth. After several minutes of observation I attempted to reach my camera bag but in doing so I disturbed the animal and it moved away into the undergrowth. Leaving the vehicle and moving to where the animal disappeared, I noted a strong scent. Despite an intensive search no further trace of the animal could be found." (cited in Park, 1986: 76)
Unfortunately, none of the characteristics he describes are completely diagnostic. He may in fact have seen a brindle coloured greyhound, which can exhibit pseudo-stripes so that under the right conditions, especially at night in the heavy rain, a torchlight can make the animal appear a tan colour with stripes. Narding's credentials have helped raise his report's credibility above the many others, and it was kept secret for almost two years while a thorough investigation was made. Sadly no animal was found which could explain his sighting, so that it must remain a tantalising mystery. However, since the Thylacine was almost certainly extinct by 1982, and a sighthound is the only species which could conceivably be mistaken for a Thylacine given the alleged length of the sighting and the ability of the observer, Naarding almost certainly saw a domestic dog (Canis familiaris).
What people in general are actually seeing must remain something of a mystery since we were not there to see what they saw. Yet although brindle-coloured greyhounds probably do not account for all purported sightings, nor can hoaxes (whether perpetrated by those who have claimed to have seen a Thylacine, or others who wish for other people to think that they have), a number of different explanations together can provide a satisfying explanation. Especially if, as some have suggested, many of the reported sightings were caused by creatures like wombats. Many people are not familiar with wildlife, and hence are likely to misidentify many animals they encounter. But whether a significant number of people can mistake a wombat for a Thylacine, I would have to remain skeptical at this point. Although, as with the persistence of the Thylacine, I could easily be brought around to the notion. Nevertheless, I am confident that misidentification is the reason for most if not all honest sightings (but not all reports, since some are made dishonestly, no such sighting ever having taken place or the animal was obviously not a Thylacine). But what about more tangible evidence?
Hair samples of Thylacines, along with those of big cats, occasionally turn up. However, analysis of all hairs tested to date have returned negative or inconclusive results, as have scat samples (e.g. Owen, 2003:194-195). But this is one of the areas where a lack of evidence is not surprising since indentifying hairs is not an exact science, and is fraught with difficulties. Hairs are often misidentified or unidentifiable, or only vaguely identifiable as belonging to one of any number of species within a taxonomic group. Likewise with scats, there are identification issues which need to be overcome. The contents of a scat differ widely depending upon the diet of the animal who left them. In the case of predators like the Thylacine, fur and bones are commonly encountered. But there does not seem to have been much written about Thylacine scats, such as their morphology, colour and typical contents, which could help identify them in the field, or even in the laboratory. DNA analysis seems to offer the only possible hope of identifying a Thylacine by way of its scat, although the fragmentary nature of the DNA in known preserved specimens would make this more difficult than normal as a greater proportion of the genome would need to be mapped before a match could be confirmed. Not surprisingly no scat has returned a positive match for Thylacine DNA to date.
Regarding plaster casts of alleged Thylacine footprints, there does not seem to be a good reference collection anywhere in Australia that can be used to compare the footprints of any animal likely to be encountered in the wild, as well as those said to exist. Because as (O'Reilly, 2011: 175-6) makes clear even so-called 'experts' can contradict themselves when identifying tracks. I have witnessed literally dozens of disputes over what animal made certain tracks, and it seems that no ten people can agree on a zoological culprit no matter whether the tracks were potentially made by a putatively extinct species or not. Thus, the need for a reference collection of casts is obvious, and yet no steps seem to have been made by anybody to either procure one or build one. Although the feet of a Thylacine, especially the hind pads, are unique, not all of these characteristics are going to be preserved in whatever medium the animal has walked on, especially if the ground under foot is hard. Of those footprints which allegedly can only have come from a Thylacine, none have been examined by multiple experts and concluded to be genuine. And many have turned out to be the tracks of native animals like wombats. However, footprints were apparently found in late 1952 or January 1953 by members of the Launceston Walking Club and found to be genuine by a Queen Victoria Museum assisstant (Anonymous, 1953). But the whereabouts of the cast now is unknown to the present author. And even if it turned up again and was subjected to analysis by multiple experts and proved to be genuine, it would not be a great surprise to many that the species survived until the early, or even the late, 1950's.
Occasionally sheep and wildlife kills are said to display textbook signs of Thylacine predation, including the eating of only certain organs, as well as the way the predator has gone about gaining entry to them. However, given the huge controversy over the role of Thylacines in the killing of sheep, the inflated numbers, it's hard to know just how serious of a problem Thylacines actually posed (or pose) to livestock. Whether they ever ate sheep at all, and if so in what numbers. Or whether they simply scavenged dead sheep which had died of natural causes, thus leading people to assume that the sheep had actually been attacked while alive by Thylacines, seem now to be unanswerable. At least one such spate of killings was found to be the work of an Alsatian dog (Owen, 2003: 194-195). Which raises an important question. Dog are often said to not mind 'ruffing up the fur a bit', which can be seen in many wild dog kills, especially pack kills, so the fact that a dog was found to be responsible for some apparently non-dog like kills shows that more research needs to be done into the sorts of variation in killing styles of various predators such as wild dogs. At present it seems like certain claims have been taken to be the Gospel by researchers Australia-over, Thylacine predation-style being one of them.
Technological advancements since the very early Thylacine expeditions means that expeditioners today have a lot more equipment at their disposal with which to record the Thylacine. Apart from basic collapsible traps, handheld cameras and video recorders are now very affordable, and most mobile phones can do both functions quite well so that no extra monetary outlay is required. There have been a number of alleged photographs of living Thylacines (e.g. Douglas, 1986), however none of these stand up to scrutiny (Rickard, 1987). Camera traps are now relatively affordable for any serious cryptozoologist as well, and can be deployed in remote areas for extended periods of time in relative safety. They have been used very successfully by biologists to assess the composition of local faunas the world over, as well as to make new finds, including significant range extensions of known species as well as documenting species potentially new to science. But even with all of this extra technology, cryptozoologists have singularly failed to 'capture' the Thylacine. The only photos and videos taken are all obviously either faked (e.g. the Cameron photos) or grainier than the famous footage taken in the Hobart zoo during the 1930's (e.g. Murray McAlister's fox footage).
The continued existence of the Thylacine cannot be completely ruled out as there is still sufficient habitat and prey to sustain a large population. But as Nick Mooney has previously remarked, we should be up to our ears in Thylacines by now. The case for its survival rests upon the many sightings, most by untrained observers, and less than perfect tangible evidence. While the case for its extinction rests solely upon the lack of an unambiguous record of the species since 1936, since both suitable habitat and prey, and numerous sightings, still occur. The latter requires us to be able to explain away all reported sightings made in the wild since 1933, both in Tasmania and on the mainland (as well as those from New Guinea). Not all alleged reports are made honestly, but most seem to be. So how can so many people be mistaken, including trained observers and more importantly those who actually saw the species when it was undoubtedly alive? In the case of sightings made until around the mid-1940's, I have no hesitation in accepting that most if not all reports refer to genuine sightings since the majority of witnesses were familiar with the live animal. But after this date the rate of sightings increases decade by decade, with some individual years boasting more than 100 sightings. And if we were solely to quantify the Thylacine population by the frequency of reported sightings we would have no choice but to concede that the species has made a resounding comeback. But more importantly, one which has gone scientifically undetcted. But the only reasonable explanation seems to be misidentification, since the lack of a body in 77 years with a thriving Thylacine population (as evidenced by the plethora of sightings) is far more unlikely given all the sightings than in the absence of such a population. According to some people Thylacines are everywhere, yet unless they are invisible it is virtually impossible that no Thylacine carcass has yet been handed over to science for examination.
However, I want to finish this article on a far more positive note. I hope that this article has not disuased anybody from searching for the Thylacine, either in Tasmania or on the mainland. Or even on New Guinea. The chances of survival are not yet zero. It could very well still exist despite the complete lack of records since 1936. And like fishing, sometimes it is the experience of being surrounded by nature more than the chance of catching something that thrills and excites. Tasmania has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. It's old growth forests and Huon pine, its pristine lakes and enigmatic place names, its colonial history and dark past, make for one hell of an adventure! Maybe the Thylacines is out there, or maybe it's not. Either way, I would jump at the chance to explore it's rugged terrain, its windswept plains. And who knows what I might find when rounding a corner....
1 Claims have been made that Thylacoleo carnifex and Genyornis newtoni, two of Australia's megafauna species not known to have survived after about 46,000 ka, are also depicted in rock paintings. However, Bednarik (2013: 484-5) has shown these claims to have no real basis.
2 Bones from the Tasmanian devil on the mainland have been dated to as little as 430 years ago, so the species seems to have persisted on the mainland after Europeans started to visit our shores in 1606, but before they formally colonized Australia on 26 January, 1788. Although, Brown (2006) has rejected this date.
3 In fairness it must be pointed out that as a population suffers from inbreeding individuals may exhibit abnormal behaviours, a point noted by (Paddle, 2000) in preferring 19th century sources compared to 20th century ones. But this counts against those who maintain that the species still exists in Tasmania, albeit undetected. If inbreeding caused the species to lose its shy and retiring nature then that makes the case for its extinction stronger since the lack of any recent records would be even harder to explain given its existence than otherwise.
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