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MYSTERIOUS MARSUPIALS: POUCHED PREDATORS WRITTEN OFF BY MAINSTREAM SCIENCE - PART 1

Posted on June 28, 2012 at 11:25 PM

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First Posted on October 14, 2007; Revised June 2012


MYSTERIOUS MARSUPIALS

Pouched Predators Written Off By Mainstream Science - Part 1


Researched, Compiled, Edited and Illustrated

By R. Merrill


THYLACINE: THE TASMANIAN WOLF-TIGER


Of all carnivorous cryptids, and perhaps even cryptids in general, the thylacine is no doubt the one of the best-known. It has had dozens of books written on it, television programs about it, websites dedicated to it, and it is even the symbol of the Center of Fortean Zoology! The reason behind its popularity is unknown; possibly it has something to do with the numbers of sightings, or maybe because the animal truly did exist once, or maybe it is simply a fascinating animal. Whatever the reason, the thylacine is one cryptid here to stay.


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The thylacine, a scientifically acknowleged and once-living animal, is also reffered to as the Tasmanian wolf, Tasmanian tiger, marsupial wolf and marsupial tiger, though it is in fact no way related to either wolf nor tiger, other than in general appearance. It is, as the latter nicknames suggest, a marsupial, with kangaroos and kolas as closer relatives than canids and felids. The animal is a dasyurid, in the family Dasyuridea, a member of the same family as Australian quolls, 'native cats', and (it's closest living relative) the undersized and less formidable 'Tasmanian devil'. Its Latin name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, translates to mean 'pouched dog, dog-headed' respectively, referring to it's dog like form. The animal resembles a tawny shorthaired dog with a long, stiff tail and rounded ears, and a row of darker brown stripes starting midway along the back and extending to the tail.


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At one time the thylacine was found on Australia's mainland in a variety of subspecies, and was among the continent's top predators. Several thousand years ago, the thylacine disappeared from the mainland, either just another victim of climatic change, or due to competition from more efficient dingoes, half-wild dogs introduced by colonizing Indonesians. Whatever the reason for the animal's disappearance, neither dingoes nor theoretical climate changes reached the island of Tasmania, where the animal survived until the arrival of modern European Australians.


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The thylacine was almost immediately seen as a threat to the newly introduced sheep—the livelihood of most colonists—and both government and private campaigns spearheaded the animal's destruction. Bounties were offered for 'tiger' scalps, and the increasing expansion of civilization drove the remaining thylacines farther and farther into the wilderness.


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An epidemic of distemper probably sealed the animals supposed fate; by the start of the 20th century they were already extreamly rare. The last bounty was paid for a skin in 1909. The price for this paid extermination was £1 for every adult slain and 10 shillings per dead pup. It seems like a paltry price for the eradication of an entire species. The last known wild thylacine was shot by a farmer, Wilf Batty, in 1930. The last specimen known to have ever existed was caught in western Tasmainia in 1933. The thylacine, nicknamed "Benjamin", lived in Tasmania's Hobart Zoo for three years, dying September 7, 1936; only two months after the Tasmanian goverment had passed a law protecting the animal.


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The true mystery of the thylacine starts almost immediately after the animal's presumed extinction. By the time of Benjamin's death, most Tasmanians had begun to feel more sympathetic toward the thylacine. Later, as the dislike of the animal faded, the Tasmanian coat-of-arms would depict a pair of thylacines, and the animal would almost become the provincial symbol.


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Only a year after the death of Benjamin, the Australia's Animals and Birds protection Board sent a pair of investigators to the remote mountains of northwestern Tasmania to look for other survivors. Though no definite evidence was ever found, the researchers did collect a handful of sightings from residents of the area. The sightings, while inconclusive at best, were enough to prompt further investigation by the board. A 1938 team found the first hard evidence—thylacine spoor, bearing the thylacine's distinctive five-toed front foot and four-toed hind foot tracks. Unfortunately, the Second World War stalled later investigations of the cryptid; the next expedition was not until a private one in 1948. Tracks were found and sightings were collected, but no real evidence was found.


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Eric E. Guiler, a chairman from the Animal and Bird protection Board, mounted nine expeditions between 1957 and 1966, after finding sheep kills and tracks unmistakably like those of the thylacine. He was able to amass more evidence, but failed to either find a body or have a sighting himself. Camera-trap operations had similar failure. A NPWS park ranger made a much-publicized sighting from the back of his pickup truck in 1982, seeing the animal in a spotlight from twenty feet. The NPWS made an announcement to discourage people from trying to find the animal, lest they threaten or disturb it. While the announcement was not interpreted as the official return of the animal, some have said it shows government recognition, whether officials admit it or not.


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Investigations of the animals presence continue to this day, but skeptics remain unconvinced, attributing sightings to misidentifications of dogs and devils, and kills as caused by the same. Still, every year people report tawny, brown, or even grey striped doglike creatures with greyhound-like muzzles in the remote forests of northern Tasmania. Disturbingly, loggers are reportedly trying to thwart recognition of living thylacines by poisoning large areas whenever sightings are recorded, in an attempt to keep environmentalists from shutting down their logging operations. This allegation has convinced many people that it is best for thylacine witnesses to keep silent, if they want the thylacine to survive. The mystery of the thylacine, however, does not end at provincial borders.


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In 1981 a number of unusual sightings in the southwest corner of Western Australia prompted the Agricultural Protection Board to send Aboriginal tracker Kevin Cameron to investigate. The animal, which Kevin soon saw for himself, was quickly identified as, much to the shock of the board, a thylacine. This report also came as quite a surprise to the rest of the world, as even those who found the possibility of thylacines living on Tasmania found it difficult to believe they could have lived, unnoticed, in Australia for several thousand years. Prior to the sightings, there had been no fossils, legends, or records from either aborigines or settlers through the early nineteenth century to suggest they lived there.


The earliest account of thylacines on the mainland comes from 1951, when a man from Dwellingup showed up at the Western Australian Museum with photos and casts of tracks he asserted were produced by a thylacine, even claiming a personal sighting. Zoologist Athol M. Douglas, who met the man at the museum, rejected his claims immediately. Several years later, the same zoologist killed a creature responsible for some strange sheep deaths—and found it to be nothing more than a feral Afghan hound. Even though this reinforced his skepticism, he admitted to, over the years, finding several kills of animals that had been killed in the manner that thylacines, not dingoes, kill their prey. Much later, in 1985, when Douglas was given five color photos of a thylacine by Cameron, his doubts all but evaporated. The photos showed what looked like a thylacine burrowing at the base of a tree, with clearly defined stripes and a long, stiff tail. Though Cameron would not tell Douglas where he had taken the pictures, he did produce plaster-casts of prints.


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While most of Cameron's descriptions rang true to how thylacines were described—stranger still since Cameron was described as barely literate—his secretive behavior suggested something amiss. Later, when submitting the photos for an article in New Scientist, Douglas noted that the film had been cut, and that the photos had been taken at different angles, and even the shadows seemed to move, not matching Cameron's account of what happened. Also, in one of the negatives, there was a shadow of what looked to Douglas like a shotgun pointed at the animal.


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To skeptics, this meant Cameron had simply and leisurely photographed a model of a thylacine, and had sloppily allowed the shadow of some equipment into the frame. Douglas, however, found the model too realistic and the gun-like shadow too suspicious to accept that explanation. He thought it more likely that Cameron and an unknown friend found the thylacine digging at the base of a tree, photographed it, shot it, and photographed the body, stiff from rigor mortis, over the next hour or so. Since anyone who is convicted of killing a thylacine is subject to a $5,000 fine, Douglas put this forward as the suggested reason for Cameron's secrecy.


In 1966 a mummified thylacine, found by the Western Australian Museum in a cave near Mundrabilla Station, was found in such well-preserved condition (even the stripes were visible) that it appeared to have died no more than a year ago. Unfortunatley, the specimen was carbon-dated to have been 4,500 years of age—much older than expected, but putting the thylacine's mainland extinction at half as long ago as previously thought.


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About twenty years later a similar expedition to the same cave found a new carcass—that of a dingo—that was hairless and had parchment-like skin. Though the dingo could not have been in the cave for more than twenty years, it was in a far worse state of preservation than the thylacine. Some have suggested that the thylacine was in fact even more recent than dated—as supported by the dingo—and that groundwater contamination had caused inaccurate dating. In addition, in 1974, a thylacine shoulder bone—though too delicate to date in it's own right, was found among the bones of small animals dated to be no more than eighty years old.


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Eastern Australia, particularly the areas north of Queensland, has had a smattering of sightings of striped, doglike animals, usually from the remote mountain regions. Many, including cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy, have had them at close range, usually at night from a spotlight or the headlights of a car. Print casts and consistent descriptions reinforce the animals supposed presence. Some supposed thylacines, due to their livestock predations, have acquired local nicknames. In south Victoria, for example, the "Wonthaggi monster' was reputed to be responsible for numerous sheep deaths. When up close sightings were made—rarely—the animal was described as having a thick, tapering tail, light-grey in coloration, and having dark stripes along it back, boldest at the hindquarters. This, of course, almost exactly matches the thylacine. The "Tantanoola Tiger " and "Ozenkadnook tiger" reported from along the Victoria/South Australia border are practically the same animal. A fairly good photo, though possibly a hoax, was taken in Victoria in 1964, showing a thylacine walking through thick foliage.


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DOBSEGNA: NEW GUINEA'S THYLACINE


Dobsegna is the name given by the mountain people of New Guinea to a mysterious creature that was once thought to be a species of canid, but is now considered by many to be a marsupial, possibly a thylacine. Reported sightings from remote areas such as Mt. Giluwe and the Jayawijaya Mountains (including the Baliem river valley), the Maoke Mountains region, and in Lorenz National Park in the Western Central Mountain Region of the Indonesian part of New Guinea all fit the description of a thylacine. As recently as 1997, sightings of animals matching the description of the thylacine, an extinct Australian marsupial were reported from the Jayawijaya region of Irian Jaya. Sightings were also reported by locals and missionaries near Mount Carstensz in Western New Guinea. The local people had apparently known about them for many years, but had never made an official report.


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In 2005, the German tourist Klaus Emmerichs, claimed to have taken a photo of a thylacine in Lake St. Clair National Park, but this photo has not been confirmed.


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Several years ago, Ned Terry, a breeder from Tasmania, received a phone call from a friend who had become a missionary in Papua. The friend related that when he showed a photograph of a thylacine to the local inhabitants, he was told that the animal still lived around there in the Jaya Wijaya mountains in stone caves. His interest piqued by his friend's story, Ned and his cousin, Robin Terry, went to the Baliem Valley. When they showed the local people there a similar photograph, the inhabitants cried out in unison, "Dobsegna, dobsegna!" while pointing to the forested slopes of the mountains.


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They explained that the creature only came out at night to hunt for prey. They said that it only ate fresh meat, a fact that, together with its extreme wariness, made it very difficult to lure out of hiding. Terry related that he was, indeed, unsuccessful in capturing or even seeing the creature. However, he was sure, based on the testimony of so many people, that the thylacine still survived in Papua.


The thylacine is thought to have surived in Tasmania until about seventy years ago, on mainland Australia until about two thousand years ago, and in Indonesian New Guinea until several thousand years ago. However, in Indonesian New Guinea, sightings have been reported as recently as the 1990s.


Western New Guinea has also had a collection of reports, and livestock killings have suggested its survival there too. While it is said to have been extinct in that region for over 2,000 years, those who investigate reports of such animals deem them credible.


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Update


The Australian Museum has dumped its much-publicized attempt to clone a tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. The ambitious project was launched in 1999 by the museum's then-director, Professor Mike Archer. The plan was to clone a tasmanian tiger from DNA recovered from a thylacine pup which had been preserved in ethanol for 136 years.


Most Recent Sightings of the Thylacine


It would be impossible in an article like this to list all the most recent purported sightings of Thylacines. However, several Web sites have attempted to do just that. One of the most complete, with sightings as current as 2012, can be found at the following link:

http://www.tassietiger.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&id=7&Itemid=17


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