The Tasmanian Tiger – How would you prove to the world you had re-discovered an extinct marsupial carnivore?
7 September 2016 will mark the 80th anniversary of the death of the last known living thylacine, who passed away on cold night in a concrete enclosure in the Hobart Zoo. Some fifty years later, in the absence of any definitive evidence of its continued existence the thylacine was officially declared extinct in 1986.
Historical photo of the thylacine showing distinctive thylacine shape, including tell-tale shape of the thylacine spine
The Hunt for the Tasmanian Tiger has continued over the last 80 years, with a handful of promising leads over that time. There have been both multiple formal and informal investigations over the years with well-intentioned amateurs and professional researchers alike attempting to answer the question of the thylacine’s continued existence.
These ongoing searches prompt the question – what proof or evidence would be needed to satisfy all concerned that the thylacine was indeed extant? The world would be naturally and rightfully sceptical of any claims made – this has been the case even in instances where the initial claims by the researchers have proved to be correct – the Night Parrott is one recent example.
In a recent discussion with Dr Bob Paddle, author of the highly regarded literature review and analysis on the Tasmanian Tiger, the Thylacine Research Unit (TRU) asked if he thought the Thylacine could still be out there waiting to be rediscovered.
“It is remotely possible but there hasn’t been any evidence that science would accept. For the world to agree the thylacine had somehow beaten the odds you would need a body, preferably of an alive thylacine”.
The body of recently deceased thylacine dating to the 1930s – DNA evidence is the best way to prove that thylacines are extant
This speaks to the heart of the issue – without irrefutable DNA evidence that was able to verified as a recent sample you cannot prove the thylacine still exists. Every other kind of evidence may increase the confidence of an extant population but without an appropriate DNA sample any claims would be subject to a degree of doubt.
What about photo and video evidence?
It doesn’t take too much exposure to cryptozoological research to become familiar with a range of videos and photographs that are reported as being of a ‘living thylacine’. These pieces of evidence typically are blurry, poorly lit, and offer a fleeting glance of the reported animal. They frequently rely on the viewer responding to the suggestion that there may be an image of thylacine in photo or video – therefore relying on confirmation bias. Often these images are presented with a vigorous defence of any features of the captured animal that may not be recognisable as thylacine.
This could be for good reason too – a moving animal in a dark background is a challenge to capture on film. Quite often though other, more creative reasons are cited for the apparent non-compliance with the known recorded images of the thylacines – one that is becoming increasingly common is that ‘the animal has mutated due to inbreeding’ or as a ‘result of natural selection’.
Whilst this is not by any stretch of the imagination implausible, it needs to be remembered that the thylacine just like their cousins the Tasmanian Devil had a low degree of genetic diversity to begin with so it could be argued that that would make them more resistant to inbreeding. However, more broadly if these changes had indeed taken place it would be even more important to confirm the suspect animals’ thylacine ancestors through DNA analysis.
A clear well-lit photo or video of the thylacine in the centre of frame of the trail camera would be a great help to the cause of the continued existence of thylacine. The image or video would need to be of the kind that even the most sceptical observer would agree ‘appeared’ to be a thylacine.
Historic thylacine photograph – This thylacine is moving and the photo is slightly blurry. Distinctive stripes, shape of spine and tail with tip off the ground- all help to identify the animal
The problem with photos and videos in this day of technology is that it is becoming increasingly easier to fake videos, to add subtle effects in post-production and to make an animal look like a thylacine.
Any investigator will have a tough time when presenting video or photographic evidence as they will have to overcome the claims of modification and the questioning of the authenticity of the material. This in itself should not be an issue for the honest investigator as they should be ready, willing and able to present their evidence to be reviewed and accepted. There needs to be no other tangible option other than a thylacine.
To overcome the potential difficulty of verifying images TRU attempts to set up multiple cameras focused on one area of interest.
“We’ve been told by video experts that it’s easier to verify footage that is taken simultaneously from multiple cameras and at different angles. It also can help where one camera might capture the image in a less than perfect way”, said Warren Darragh the team’s technology expert.
Classification of Evidence
In recent podcast, Zoologist and highly regarded marsupial carnivore expert, Chris Coupland described the team’s approach to the classification of thylacine related evidence. He describes DNA evidence as first grade with photo and video evidence as being either grade 3 or 4 depending on the quality and context of the images. TRU’s evidence classification scheme is listed in the table below.
TRU’s master bushman and expert tracker Bill Flowers checks out the many photographs of footprints that people send into the team for review.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in the thylacine vault at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) and I’ve made fine detail drawings of thylacine feet. This as well our access to Tasmanian Government files allows us to assess footprints with a high degree of certainty. Some people don’t realise that there are also preserved thylacine track lines – etched in sandstone that provide a perfect reference for thylacine prints and gaits”.
“Having worked with animals on a daily basis for decades I can recognise their spore very reliably”, said Bill.
Unfortunately, the most frequently supplied prints provided to the team turn out to be dog prints.
Ultimately, TRU considers that you would expect to see multiple types of evidence in a good claim. For example, you might collect video and photographic evidence, hair from a hair trap and some good quality footprints – before having a strong suspicion that you had a thylacine on your hands. You would then be looking too confirm that suspicion with good DNA evidence.
If a researcher had what they thought was high grade evidence in hand, the next process would be to have it validated by appropriate scientists such as experts in marsupial carnivores, biologists, zoologists and the like. Perhaps further confirmation from someone like former Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Officer and biologist Mr Nick Mooney – who has been investigating thylacine in a professional context for most his adult life would be highly beneficial.
Finally, any investigator ready to make claims of the re-discovery of the thylacine would need to consider the protected species status and the potential significant legal ramifications of any actions that could lead to harm of the animal. Arguably, a non-government endorsed announcement and presentation of evidence would readily satisfy the requirements of a number of sections of the act. To avoid this the researcher would need to present their evidence as well as their permits to collect the evidence that have gathered to the government who would ultimately determine the next steps.
An extract application for a permit to collect/investigate thylacine