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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 7 September 2012

On This Day, 7 September: vale Thylacine

* 1936. Something of an elegy today, for a death that always fills me with sadness, anger and shame for things we've done. On this day the last undeniably live Thylacine died alone and in a bare pen in Hobart Zoo, apparently from exposure having been carelessly locked out of its den. Aside from the much more important reasons, I would selfishly so love to have seen wild Thylacines.

Thylacine pair, Hobart Zoo, early 1900s.
Photo courtesy of Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
I was only a couple of thousand years too late to share mainland Australia with them; indigenous Australians knew them well, and left illustrations in northern cave galleries. The convergent evolution of this magnificent marsupial with wolves is remarkable, even to details of the skull; it seems that that's the way to look if you're going to make a living chasing and eating medium-sized herbivores. It is remarkable because as a placental mammal the wolf is more closely related to me than it is to the Thylacine. There's an irony too because it is likely, though unproven, that a wolf - of the sub-species we now know as the Dingo (brought to Australia some 4,000 to 4,5000 years ago) - caused the demise of mainland Thylacines.

The Thylacine's mainland nemesis?
Dingo, west of Windorah, Queensland.

Dingoes didn't make it to Tasmania, partly because they arrived after Tasmania was last joined to the mainland during the last glaciation, and the Thylacines continued to thrive there. However Europeans came, and feared and hated something that looked like a wolf (not to mention having tigerish stripes on the rump) and took the odd sheep. To farmer assaults on them was added the depredations of bounty hunters, paid by the government for corpses. As a top predator Thylacines were never common, their habitat was shrinking, and the last wild Thylacine to be shot died in 1930; the last sad captive was snatched from the wild in 1933. It's not hard to find copies of black-and-white film clips of this animal on the internet (eg here). 

Thylacine family, public sculpture, Launceston.
Long regarded as a member of the family Dasyuridae (along with the Tasmanian Devil, quolls and small marsupial carnivores such as antechinuses), Thylacines are now regarded as having belonged to their own family Thylacinidae, with the termite-specialising Numbat as probably the nearest relative.
Thylacine's closest living relative?
Numbat, Perth Zoo.

It'd be nice to think we'd learnt something from our destruction of this beautiful and spectacular animal, but I'm not optimistic.

2 comments:

madoqua said...

Such a sad story, as are all extinctions Ian. We have a local plant species that only had 9 known plants a few years ago. It's not looking good.

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, I get both angry and very sad just writing about it. What is the plant species you're referring to?