The Thylacine: A Striped Haunting

Corrina Carter

Australian biologist David Fleay filmed the last thylacine—picture a striped, smooth-coated wolf with a furry rod for a tail—at Tasmania’s Hobart Zoo in 1933. For the bulk of the footage, the marsupial, a male that historians dub “Benjamin” though he had no pet name in life, paces up and down his enclosure. Not much is known about the behavior of this individual. A recent study only just confirmed his sex. But it seems safe to attribute Ben’s circling to restlessness. His world, after all, had narrowed from an expansive gum forest to an eight-meter-long pen surrounded by wire mesh. Seldom does he relax, lying on his side until some unrecorded stimulus brings him to his feet trembling with restrained vigor. At one point, Ben swings his dog-like head in the direction of the camera as if taking leave of existence.

On September 7, 1936, Benjamin’s keepers closed the door to his den to keep him visible during business hours, forgot to reopen it, and departed for the evening. That night the temperature dropped below freezing. Ben, said to alert his handlers when he wanted to retire, probably barked with increasing urgency. Perhaps his cough-like cry, a sound that used to be an intrinsic piece of the outback, reached the woods beyond his cage. If so, every wallaby, wombat, and bandicoot within hearing distance, too young to recall the terror of being stalked by a thylacine, must have experienced fear akin to muscle memory. Their alarm was short-lived. As the sky blued toward dawn, Ben fell silent. He shivered, stiffened, slept, dreamed, and died. Over twenty million years of evolution vanished with him.

 

At the beginning of the Miocene epoch 23 million years ago (Ma), Australasia—Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea, and New Zealand—boasted a wet, warm climate. Lush vegetation greened the region, producing life on a barbarous scale. Flesh-eating kangaroos, pouched lions, and flightless birds taller than NBA centers occupied the top of the food chain. The thylacinids, cat-sized opportunists that first appeared in the late Oligocene (30 Ma), were biotic afterthoughts.

A reversal loomed. When sea levels plummeted, ushering in a dry period, the thylacinids outcompeted their gargantuan contemporaries. In a short time, geologically speaking, they had diversified into a range of species. The largest, Thylacinus potens, “begat” Benjamin’s kind four million years ago, in the Pliocene. Thus began a success story that would last until the current epoch.

The thylacine flourished thanks to a bizarre array of characteristics. Honey-brown except for thirteen to twenty sickle-shaped stripes, it could vanish into the sun-yellowed bush in an instant. It also sported a gait midway between the canter of a horse and the lope of a panther; this awkward yet energy-efficient stride allowed it to pursue its prey for hours on end. Stranger still, the animal’s jaws were almost as flexible as a snake’s, a trait that may have aided meat ingestion. (In a photograph shot at the London Zoo in 1926, a female yawns with such abandon someone might have carved an enormous C into her face.)

A strong parent-offspring bond contributed to the thylacine’s effectiveness as well. Mothers in particular displayed remarkable affection for their joeys. In 1863, naturalist Ronald Gunn watched a captive adult let her entire litter climb into her marsupium after the youngsters were frightened. The combined weight of the babies pulled her pouch to the ground. Similarly, in 1903, Annis Knight, daughter of wildlife painter Charles Knight, observed a bitch at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, permitting her brood to use her as a play structure. The little ones repeatedly clambered onto and rolled off her back.

Here, indeed, was a creature worth celebrating. The Aborigines certainly thought so. Ancient art depicts organisms ranging from the roly-poly dugong to the elegant rock wallaby, yet thylacine engravings show special care. In the Dampier Archipelago, on Angel Island, two “marsupial wolves” sprawl across stone. The more striking of the pair extends a paw in a gesture so motive it blurs the line between representation and reality. In another moment, the image will leap from its rugged canvas, furred, skinned, and blooded.

 

According to scientific consensus, several misfortunes precipitated the thylacine’s decline. First, Paleolithic people hunted both Benjamin’s species and its prey to the threshold of collapse. Then, 4,000 years ago, dingoes, most likely stowaways on an Asian seafaring voyage, reached Australia. Swift, intelligent pack hunters, they spread from the mainland to New Guinea with astonishing speed. The thylacine could not contend with this added pressure. It retreated to Tasmania, where, in the absence of excessive human contact and competition from placental mammals, it maintained sustainable numbers.

Doom took the form of an attractive British survey vessel called the Lady Nelson. The ship looked innocuous, but she carried a throng of Royal Navy veterans, fortune-seekers, and convicts hungry for glory. In September 1803, the Lady docked at Risdon Cove off the River Derwent. Her passengers immediately established a colony. While the settlement foundered—the men who had arrived on the Lady relocated to what is now Hobart—it paved the way for future ventures. In the following decades, Europeans converged on Van Diemen’s Land. They brought sheep with them.

As soon as the whites encountered the thylacine, they named it the Tasmanian tiger and pegged it as a threat. It didn’t matter that the odd beast subsisted on its fellow marsupials, that the colonists’ own dogs posed greater danger to livestock. The animal had to be eliminated.

A bounty was set in 1830. Poachers responded, poisoning and trapping without inhibition. The slaughter intensified when the government increased the reward for a dead Tassie tiger in the late 1800s. Between 1888 and 1914, 2,268 pelts were collected. A fourth of the population had been eradicated in around a quarter century. (Researchers estimate 5,000 thylacines occupied the island pre- Lady Nelson.) Given that the superstitious preferred mutilating the corpses to turning them in, that figure may be much higher.

The killings were as brutal as they were fleet. Thylacines writhed in snares, fled kangaroo hounds until they collapsed, and, lung-shot, drowned in their own blood. On May 6, 1930, chicken farmer Wilfred Batty opened fire on a male that had wandered onto his property, then watched the stricken creature suffer for twenty minutes. A local with a camera captured the macabre scene. In the first photo, the tiger, his rear legs a limp tangle, leans forward as if trying to stand. In the second, his head lies on his forepaws. Only his ears, pricked and swiveled outward, retain life. What, one wonders, did he hear in those final moments? Perhaps, beyond the high human voices, the squawking of Batty’s fowl, and the crunch of boots, he could detect the wind rising exactly as it had in the Pliocene, when his race made the wilderness hum with the electricity of a true apex predator.

By the 1900s, the thylacine had become so rare that zoological societies clamored for live specimens. Bushwhackers rounded up the remaining tigers and shipped them to London, New York, or Washington, DC Many died in transit. The survivors, reacting to the stress of confinement, refused to breed. A handful of individuals, sold to Hobart Zoo and therefore spared a strenuous journey, stayed healthy a little longer.

A young adult secured in the old-growth forests of the Florentine Valley outlived his cagemates. This was Benjamin. The details of his brief existence have been lost to history, but a few telling facts endure. Even today, in the age of deforestation, the Upper Florentine encompasses sixty square kilometers of native habitat. Ben’s enclosure measured eight by four meters—barely enough room to accelerate from a trot to a jog. The cold front that finished the world’s last thylacine was a mercy. Yet death did not grant Ben dignity. His hide had grown patchy before the end. Curators at the Tasmanian Museum deemed his blemished pelt unworthy of exhibition and tossed it. They didn’t realize what they had done until no tigers were sighted for a month, then a season, then a year. . . .

Alarmed biologists combed Tasmania for holdouts. In 1945, David Fleay, haunted by his audience with Ben, whom he would remember as “long, lean, softly padding . . . ethereal,” led the most extensive search. He found prints too faded to be attributed to the thylacine beyond a reasonable doubt. On the heels of Fleay, University of Tasmania scientist Eric Guiler also discovered promising but ambiguous tracks. Subsequent expeditions failed. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the species extinct in 1982. Less than two centuries had passed since the Lady Nelson dropped anchor in Risdon Cove, her moorings splitting the water with a cheerful splash.

 

The thylacine did not fade from the popular imagination with the IUCN’s pronouncement. In fact, it has only gained relevance since the 1980s. Books, movies, and television programs regularly revive interest in the Tassie tiger. Most recently, Julia Leigh’s acclaimed debut novel The Hunter inspired a motion picture starring Willem Dafoe. The species also adorns stamps in places as disparate as Micronesia and Mozambique. Even Tasmania’s coat of arms pays tribute to the marsupial wolf, albeit in dubious fashion. Two of the doomed animals, rearing onto their hind legs in a disconcertingly anthropomorphic posture, lift up a shield emblazoned with a ram among other trappings of European civilization. And, of course, mounted specimens prowl artificial, glass-encased landscapes in museums across the globe. Thousands visit every year, half-hoping the stiff skin will ripple, the acrylic eyes gleam.

For some, hope deepens to belief. A small but devoted portion of the scientific community contends that Benjamin was not the last of his kind. The thylacine survives in the remote corners of Australasia. A handful of sightings support this theory. The majority can be chalked up to human error.

In 1961, as night fell, Sandy Cape fishermen Bill Morrison and Laurie Thompson spotted something strange stealing their bait. Thompson rushed the offender with a heavy stick, struck it a fatal blow, and went to bed. The sun rose on the broken form of a thylacine. Recognizing the implications of their find, Morrison and Thompson hid the carcass under a metal sheet. When they returned in the afternoon, the body had vanished. They reported the occurrence to the government, instigating a search of the area. Years later, researchers at the Keith Turnbull Institute in Melbourne tested hairs recovered from the sheet. The results were inconclusive, but excluded the thylacine. Thompson most likely killed a dog.

Likewise, in 1972, thylacine expert Robert Brown saw a striped quadruped lope into the yellow jurisdiction of his headlights. He immediately recruited his colleague Jeremy Griffith to help him catch the beast. After a chase through the woods outside Launceston, they succeeded. The tiger was a brindled greyhound. Brown must have blushed to his hairline.

Other accounts cannot be dismissed so easily. In 1982, park ranger Hans Naarding, asleep in his car near the Arthur River, woke to the tattoo of rain on his windshield. He stiffened almost instantly. A large marsupial with a superficially canine appearance had emerged from the undergrowth. It lingered mere meters from Naarding’s vehicle for a solid three minutes. The second it departed, he wrote down everything from the number of its stripes to the color of its eyeshine. Several noted biologists reviewed Naarding’s notes and listened to his testimony. They concluded that he had indeed had a brush with a thylacine.

Just as compelling, the Dani people of western New Guinea, where Tassie tigers supposedly were stamped out long ago, share their mountain homeland with a mysterious carnivore neither wolf nor kangaroo. They call this chimera the dobsegna. Intrigued, cattle farmer Ned Terry traveled to the Dani’s central village armed with a photograph of a thylacine. When he held up the picture, locals pointed to the hills. The incident generated excitement, but not an investigation.

 

And so the thylacine has been dubbed “the world’s healthiest extinct animal.” But even if a few individuals remain, should scientists expend valuable resources to find them? In 2004, Cornell ornithologists announced that the fabled ivory-billed woodpecker had been rediscovered though the sole evidence of the bird’s continued existence was a heartbeat of blurry footage shot from a canoe. In response, the federal government cut funding for programs devoted to extant species to mount an exhaustive search for the ivory-bill. All is quiet on the woodpecker front. Meanwhile the Florida grasshopper sparrow, the Gunnison sage-grouse, and the Kirtland’s warbler cling to life by rapidly fraying threads. A concerted effort to locate the Tassie tiger could take a similarly disastrous turn. Under the circumstances, it may be best to accept that the marsupial wolf is either gone or too rare to save. Such resignation would not diminish the creature’s importance.

The thylacine will always be remembered. It lairs in an imagined wilderness, under a rocky outcrop from which it can survey a gum forest enlivened by the clucking of wallabies and wombats. At sundown, it creeps into the open. It pauses. It sniffs the air. The wind blows the white fleece inside its ears. There has never been anything like it.

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