The thylacine died in 1936 at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, but zoo records were unable to document the whereabouts of the tiger’s remains, leading many experts to fear they had been lost forever.
For decades, experts have been searching for the missing remains of the last known Tasmanian tiger, and finally their search has come to an end. It was recently discovered that the thylacine the remains had been stored in an Australian museum the entire time.
“For years, many museum curators and researchers searched for his remains without success,” said scientist and author Robert Paddle, according to The Guardian. “No thylacine material dating to 1936 had been recorded in the zoological collection, so it was assumed that his body had been discarded.”
But while searching through the museum’s taxidermist’s annual report for 1936/37, Paddle and the curator of vertebrate zoology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), Dr Kathryn Medlock, found that the thylacine was among the specimens that had been worked. in that year.
“We tried to find out which specimens we could trace back to something. There was just a skeleton and flat skin left,” Medlock said.
As it turned out, when the female marsupial died in September 1936, her remains were immediately handed over to the museum, where they were kept for educational purposes, not for research. As a result, it was never properly cataloged and remained hidden in storage.
According to smithsonian magazine The museum’s taxidermist at the time, William Cunningham, had skinned the thylacine and tanned its hide so that it could be easily transported to schools for demonstrations.
Similarly, the skeleton of the thylacine was broken open, and its bones were placed on a series of five flash cards, the ones they were still on when Paddle and Medlock discovered them. Since then, the bones and skin have been displayed in the museum’s thylacine gallery.
For quite some time, a Tasmanian tiger named Benjamin – not the name given to him by zoo staff, who was often photographed while in captivity at Beaumaris Zoo – was believed to be the last thylacine. However, new research found that there was a female of the species that survived Benjamin, and the remains of her were the ones that had long eluded researchers.
It was an old female, captured in 1936 by a trapper named Elias Churchill. Churchill sold the thylacine to the zoo, but Paddle said the sale was never recorded because, “at the time, ground trapping was illegal and Churchill could have been fined.”
The female thylacine only lived a few months after the sale before dying from exposure. Her body was then gifted to the museum, where it was unknowingly used in educational demonstrations.
“It is bittersweet that the mystery surrounding the remains of the last thylacine has been solved,” said museum director Mary Mulcahy. “Our collection of thylacines at TMAG is very valuable and is held in high regard by researchers.”
In the early 19th century, when European settlers began to colonize the South Pacific regions, approximately 5,000 thylacines still lived in Tasmania. At the time, they were the largest marsupial carnivores on the planet, and relatively shy. For the most part, Tasmanian tigers avoided humans.
However, the colonists feared, and incorrectly assumed, that the thylacines were preying on their livestock, so they offered bounties for the creatures and hunted them en masse. Naturally, this was one of the main causes of the eventual extinction of the species.
“Most of the new settlers didn’t really value Australian wildlife. They were simply viewed as pests to whatever crop those settlers tried to grow,” said conservation biologist John Woinarski. “It was all about short-term benefits and gains. I’m sure most people didn’t think that a bounty on thylacines would result in their extinction, and even if they did, I don’t think it would have been an undesirable outcome for them.”
This discovery also comes shortly after Colossal Biosciences, a genetics start-up, the same company that, last year, announced it was trying to bring the woolly mammoth returns from extinction — announced plans for De-extinguish the Tasmanian tiger, smithsonian reports.
The ambitious plan also involves the subsequent reintroduction of thylacines into the Tasmanian ecosystem, but the project has proven controversial, with some researchers referring to it as “fairytale science.”
“It’s pretty clear to people like me that the extinction of thylacines or mammoths is more about media attention for scientists and less about doing serious science,” said Jeremy Austin, an evolutionary biologist at the Australian Center for Ancient DNA.
Time will tell if Colossal’s ambitious project comes to fruition, but for now, at least one mystery surrounding the thylacine has been solved.
After reading about the recovered remains of this Tasmanian animal, read the story of the Seven Tasmanian devils born in mainland Australia for the first time in 3,000 years. Or, read about the oldest human remains in America – which were probably lost in a fire.