Famous video of a thylacine in captivity may not depict the last individual of the species after all, according to new research. Australian scientists have rediscovered the preserved remains of a later thylacine in the collection of a museum in Tasmania.
The story of the thylacine is a tragic one. Once widespread across Australia, this carnivorous marsupial went extinct on the mainland around 2,000 years ago, with a population persisting on the southern island of Tasmania into the 20th century. The thylacine was considered a pest by European settlers and hunted relentlessly, thanks to a bounty placed on their heads. Government protections weren’t brought in until 1936 – mere months before the last known member of the species died in captivity.
One reason the story might resonate so strongly with people is that there’s video footage (originally shot on 16-mm film) of this last living individual – the “endling” – pacing around its dank, featureless cage in the years before its death. Often erroneously referred to as “Benjamin,” the thylacine in the video is said to have died on September 7, 1936, closing the book on its entire species. But new research suggests the animal in the video was actually the second last thylacine.
The male thylacine made famous by the photos and video actually died in May 1936, according to researchers Robert Paddle and Kathryn Medlock. While investigating unpublished archives, the team found that shortly after “Benjamin” died the zoo obtained another thylacine – an old, female specimen – and this was the true endling of the species that died on September 7.
The reason for the secrecy seems to be that the transaction was a bit shady. The thylacine was apparently caught by Elias Churchill, a local trapper, who sold it to the zoo in mid-May 1936.
“The sale was not recorded or publicized by the zoo because, at the time, ground-based snaring was illegal and Churchill could have been fined,” said Paddle.
The team made this fascinating discovery while investigating a related mystery – that of the whereabouts of the thylacine endling’s remains. Records from the zoo indicated that the remains had been transferred to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in 1936 – but there seemed to be no record from the museum’s side. So, Paddle and Medlock set out to track them down by investigating unpublished archives from both the zoo and the museum.
“For years, many museum curators and researchers searched for its remains without success, as no thylacine material dating from 1936 had been recorded in the zoological collection, and so it was assumed its body had been discarded,” said Paddle.
On closer inspection, however, the team discovered a clue in a previously unpublished report from the museum’s taxidermist. A thylacine was mentioned among a list of specimens worked on between 1936 and 1937, prompting the researchers to review all thylacine remains in the TMAG collection.
And sure enough, they identified a thylacine skin and skeleton for which no data had been recorded. The teeth showed an even wear pattern that indicated the animal had been very old when it died, and the skull matched perfectly with the head of the skin. The team concluded these two pieces were the long-lost remains of the last thylacine, and the reason they hadn’t been registered in the museum’s collection was because they’d been delegated to a traveling hands-on education exhibit.
“The thylacine body had been skinned, and the disarticulated skeleton was positioned on a series of five cards to be included in the newly formed education collection overseen by museum science teacher Mr A. W. G. Powell,” said Medlock said.“The arrangement of the skeleton on the cards allowed museum teachers to explain thylacine anatomy to students. The skin was carefully tanned as a flat skin by the museum’s taxidermist, William Cunningham, which meant it could be easily transported and used as a demonstration specimen for school classes learning about Tasmanian marsupials.”
With the mystery now apparently cleared up, the remains have been put on public display in TMAG in Hobart, Tasmania.
The paper is due to be published on the Australian Zoologist website.