Tasmanian Tiger: Story of an Extinction

November 30th has been designated as Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Each year this provides an opportunity to learn and tell the stories about lost and disappearing species, and to renew commitments to those remaining.

Today’s post, in advance of next Wednesday’s Remembrance Day, is by Bryony from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each sharing our passion and  interest in the museum and its objects, and with 2016 marking the 80th anniversary of the extinction of the thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger) Bryony takes a look at this incredible animal, which can now only be seen as a museum specimen.

The Living Worlds and Nature’s Library galleries at Manchester Museum tell many stories of lost and threatened species – and to find out more have a look at the Curators’ blogs.

Manchester Museum’s Extinction or Survival? exhibition is open now and runs until 20th April 2017. Not only does this exhibition display and remember many species that have been lost, but importantly the Museum presents diverse ways in which people are able to make a difference for nature – it includes creatures that have made it back from the brink with the help of humans, and information about Manchester Museum’s conservation project, breeding Costa Rican frogs such as the lemur leaf frog.

And you can join the conversation now at #MMExtinctionSurvival.

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Tasmanian Tiger: Story of an Extinction

This is the story of one animal that became extinct so recently that we have photos of it, videos, skins, everything except for – of course – the creature itself. That creature is known variously as the Tasmanian tiger, Tasmanian wolf or thylacine. There are people still alive today who saw these creatures when they were around, but chances are that to most they’ll be a complete surprise.

Here, I’ll prove it.

All of the combined footage of Tasmanian tigers, all zoo specimens, from Tasmania and London. Some of this film is of the last known individual of the species.

Despite their other names, they are neither tigers nor wolves. In actual fact, they were much more closely related to kangaroos – they were their own branch of the marsupial family, meaning they kept their babies in a pouch!

I can prove that, too.

Left, one of the two photographs showing a Tasmanian tiger with a joey in its pouch, Adelaide Zoo, Australia, 1898 (Image from: The Last Tasmanian Tiger); right, a painting by Joseph Gleeson of the female who arrived at the Smithsonian National Zoo with three cubs, 1902. (Image from: naturalhistory.si.edu)

The pouch pointed backwards, however, which is normal for some marsupials, particularly those that dig – nothing worse than soil in the pouch, I imagine!

By the time these photos and videos were taken, however, the Tasmanian tiger was already in a great deal of danger. It was commonly blamed for livestock deaths, particularly after the introduction of sheep onto the island in 1824. This led to the first price being put on their heads by the Van Diemen’s Land Company as early as 1830 (Van Diemen’s Land was the original name of Tasmania).

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A popularly distributed image used to encourage the persecution of the Tasmanian tiger, taken in 1821. The picture was cropped to obscure the fact that this was a captive specimen. (Image from: wikipedia.org)

At the same time, the settlers and their livestock were altering the traditional habitat of the Tasmanian tiger. The famous English naturalist, John Gould, a man who worked with Charles Darwin, had this to say about the fate of the Tasmanian tiger in 1863:

“When the comparatively small island of Tasmania becomes more densely populated, and its primitive forests are intersected with roads from the eastern to the western coast, the numbers of this singular animal will speedily diminish, extermination will have its full sway, and it will then, like the Wolf in England and Scotland, be recorded as an animal of the past …”

– John Gould, 1863

He was right. Their decline became particularly rapid later that century, when, between 1888 and 1909, the Tasmanian government had an official bounty put on the Tasmanian tiger – for every dead specimen, you would be paid £1 (the equivalent today of more than £100) and 10 shillings for a pup. This led to thousands being shot during this time period, and gives us records of their sharp decline. The final year of this scheme only resulted in two Tasmanian tiger bounties for that entire year, they had become so scarce.

Hunted Tasmanian tigers, including the last known one shot in the wild, right image, posed with Wilf Batty, 1930. (Images from: theconversation.com and en.wikipedia.org)

Added to that, when their numbers were already very low in the early part of the 20th century, disease spread across the population and devastated numbers further. The very last one, or ‘endling’, has become known as Benjamin, despite being widely thought to have been female. She was trapped in the wild in the Florentine Valley in 1933, and was then taken to the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania for the rest of her days.

Campaigns for official protection of the Tasmanian tiger had been ongoing since 1901. At last, in July 1936, official protection was implemented, but it was too late – less than two months later, on the 7th of September 1936, Benjamin, the last known Tasmanian tiger, was left locked out of her sheltered sleeping quarters. There was a long day of searing heat, which changed into freezing temperatures at night, and by the morning, the very last recorded animal of this species was dead.

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Benjamin yawning, showing another unusual trait of Tasmanian tigers, that of a jaw that could open unusually wide. Sadly, with none left to study, we aren’t quite sure why. Picture taken at the Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, Tasmania, 1933. (Image from: rebrn.com)

… Or was it?

Like many other creatures that capture the public imagination, there have been hundreds of reports by people saying that they have seen this animal, right up until the modern day. This is further fuelled by the fact that in around 1910 an amateur organisation, the Thylacine Preservation Society, is said to have released 12 at Wilson’s Promontory on the mainland. There has been no substantial proof (such as footprints, vocalisations heard etc.) since the 1960s to suggest that there are still any in the wild, but every now and then people catch images on camera …

Video compiling footage of possible Tasmanian tigers – bear in mind that a lot of these are considered more likely to be mangy foxes or even kangaroos. (Skip to 3:15 to watch the footage)

However, multiple substantial searches (with substantial rewards for success) over the past 80 years or so have failed to find anything. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no hope – they can clone animals these days, right?

Well, this is actually a very contentious issue …

There has already been a huge project to ‘de-extinct’ these animals that ran between 1999-2005 attempting to do just that, and research continues today, but so far all attempts have failed. It has been estimated that it would take up to AUS$80 million (around £50 million) to fund a successful attempt, as the Tasmanian tiger’s full genome has never been sequenced and there are no close relatives to help the process along. Problems include the fact that all of the available DNA is degraded and mostly unusable, and with the Tasmanian tiger being a different branch of the marsupial family, finding a suitable incubator species.

Many people have pointed out, quite sensibly, that this sort of funding and effort needs to go towards conserving the species we have left today and the habitats they need. The Tasmanian tiger’s disappearance from existence can be instead thought of as a reminder of what can happen unless we take some action now. This is something that, when people put their minds to it and work together, can produce some fantastic results. After all, as the ‘Extinction or Survival? exhibition shows, bison numbers fell from around 60 million to only 300 between 1800 and 1900, but thanks to people rallying to save it at the turn of the last century, we are 100 years on and have a population of half a million.

However, for the Tasmanian tiger, in order to see one today your best bet is to come and see them in the museum.

Tasmanian tiger skeleton, Living Worlds, Manchester Museum; taxidermy specimen of a Tasmanian tiger, on loan from the Kendal Museum, next to video footage of Benjamin, ‘Extinction Or Survival?’, Manchester Museum.

Our ‘Extinction Or Survival?‘ exhibition runs until the 20th of April 2017 – come and see it before it disappears too.

Bryony Rigby

P.S. Want to find out more?
http://www.naturalworlds.org/thylacine/
http://thylacine-dreams.tumblr.com/
http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/index.aspx?base=4765
http://thenewdaily.com.au/life/tech/2015/06/16/de-extinctify-tasmanian-tiger/
http://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2009/07-08/cloning-the-thylacine/
Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record by Errol Fuller, Princeton Publishing, 2014
Extinct: Fact Files by Simon Furman, Channel 4 Books, 2001

For more about animals and nature, have a look at the Curator’s blogs, Nature Manchester.

And read more animal stories from the Visitor Team:
The Nocturnal Journals
The Bison – Emperor of the Forest
Extinction or Survival? – The Giant Panda
The War of the Snails, Round One: The Home Favourite

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