This month’s blog focuses on the thylacine – which became extinct 80 years ago in 1936. Thylacinus cynocephalus, or as it was more commonly referred to – the Tasmanian Tiger, or sometime the Tasmanian Wolf; was the “largest marsupial carnivore to have existed into modern times”. There were accounts by sailors of a tiger like creature inhabiting Tasmania as early as the 17th century, but one of the first detailed descriptions was in the Sydney Gazette in 1805. It talks of an animal which is like a “hyena, at the same time strongly reminding the observer of the appearance of a low wolf dog”. The gentleman who found this animal, preserved its parts for scientific study – and there was great interest in the study of this ‘new species’, particularly in Europe. These thylacine specimens were written about in places such as the Transactions of the Linnaean Society, and piqued the interest of figures of the time such as Sir Joseph Banks.
Thylacines were sent from Tasmania to zoos all around the world – from Antwerp to New York. ZSL London Zoo was the first large zoological garden to exhibit thylacines in 1850. A male and female arrived on 18 May, from Ronald Campbell Gunn and Dr James Grant of Tasmania. When the male passed away in 1853, it was the subject of a paper in the Society’s Proceedings by Dr Edwards Crisp where he compared the anatomy of the thylacine to that of a cape hunting dog. This was the first thylacine to be dissected for scientific study in the country. You can see the spleen from this thylacine in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons. Medical doctors and anatomists alike published numerate papers on this new animal, which helped to understand more about the anatomy of the thylacine, and also how it related to other marsupial animals like the koala or kangaroo.
As well as anatomical study, thylacines were also depicted by artists of the time. In our Proceedings we have a Joseph Wolf painting of the animal. ‘Mammals of Australia’ by John Gould contains several lithographic prints of thylacines (one of which you can see at the top of this article). We hold a copy of both in our collections.
Over the years we had 20 thylacines at London Zoo – you can see some footage of one from 1933 here.
However, in its native Tasmania, the thylacine gained a reputation (some say unfairly) as a sheep killer, and many of them were killed because of this. This greatly depleted the wild population, and a epizootic disease at the end of the 19th century depleted them again. David Owen in his book ‘Thylacine: the tragic tale of the Tasmanian Tiger’ notes that the presence of the animals in zoo collections helped to undo some of the stigma and public perception of thylacines, but in its native Tasmania, the animals were still being hunted and killed. A law was enacted in 1930 to offer them some form of protection, not least thanks to the efforts of Thomas Flynn and Clive Lord, and papers they wrote on the animal.
The last thylacine at ZSL London Zoo, a female, died on the 9 August 1931, and was the last to be displayed outside of Australia. The last thylacine in captivity died in Hobart Zoo on 7 September 1936. The species is now considered to be extinct, but some material has been written by people who claim to have seen them in the wild in Tasmania.
To find out more about the Library, and our online catalogue, see here.
Thylacine: the tragic tale of the Tasmanian Tiger – David Owen, Baltimore : John Hopkins University Press, (2003)
The Tasmanian Tiger: extinct or extant? – ed. Rebecca Lang, Strange Nation Publishing, (2014)
Tasmanian Tiger: alive and well – ed. Ned Terry, Publ. by Edward Vincent Terry, (2005)
The International Thylacine Database – ed. Stephen R Sleightholme & Nicholas P Ayliffe
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