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MYSTERIOUS MARSUPIALS: POUCHED PREDATORS WRITTEN OFF BY MAINSTREAM SCIENCE - PART 3

Posted on June 30, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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First Posted on October 14, 2007; Revised June 2012


MYSTERIOUS MARSUPIALS

Pouched Predators Written Off By Mainstream Science - Part 3


Researched, Compiled, Edited and Illustrated

By R. Merrill


THE MARSUPIAL LION: THE MOST DEFINITIVE INFORMATION YET


A few good books have already reviewed Australian big cat sightings. Karl Shuker’s 1989 Mystery Cats of the World is a classic, and Tony Healy and Paul Cropper’s 1994 Out of the Shadows includes a good section on Australian big cats too. One of the most influential books on the subject is David O’Reilly’s 1981 Savage Shadow: the Search for the Australian Cougar [recently republished by Strange Nation Publishing]. O’Reilly’s book mostly centres around the experiences of those who clamed to have seen (or experienced the depredations of) the ‘Cordering Cougar’ in West Australia during the 1970s. One of the main contentions about the ‘puma’ phenomenon wasn’t just that people were seeing big, puma-like cats in the West Australian bush, but also that government officials were unwilling to investigate or make announcements about it. This apparent lack of government action has been a consistent theme throughout the Australian ‘mystery big cat’ experience.


A long term interest and involvement in Australian and world mysteries led Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang to research and produce what is now the definitive volume on Australian mystery big cats; it’s titled Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers (Williams & Lang 2010). At 434 pages, it’s substantial. It’s also highly readable, nicely formatted and very well illustrated. The authors have collated a vast amount of information gleaned not only from published sources but also from interviews with both eyewitnesses and people who have examined evidence firsthand. Williams and Lang clearly travelled widely across the country, photographing locations, people, documents, taxiderm specimens and so on at what must have been great personal expense. They obtained previously undisclosed documents through freedom of information acts . A lengthy appendix (c. 120 pages) includes copies of numerous letters and documents produced by government officials, veterinarians, ecologists, geneticists and others. The volume is fully referenced (though with the citations given at the bottom of the respective pages, rather than at the end of the text) and with an index.


So, to anyone seriously interested in mystery animals, mystery big cats or Australian mammals in general, this book is a must-have. Never before has so much data been gathered together on the subject: a tip of the hat and a well done to the authors on this substantial achievement. [Graphic below borrowed from Centre for Fortean Zoology Australia].


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There Are Wild Big Cats in Australia


As always when talking about mystery animals, remember that these phenomena are not just interesting because there might be real, flesh-and-blood animals at the bottom of the reports: even if there are not, mystery animal sightings, accounts and stories are still fascinating and research-worthy subjects, combining as they do psychology, sociology, folklore and human observational skills and biases. Remember that some people who would ordinarily be labeled cryptozoologists are quite happy to be regarded as folklorists!


However, while the mystery big cat phenomenon does indeed involve sociology and folklore, there’s no doubt that at least some sightings involve real animals. Large (sometimes black) feral dogs and dingoes, foxes, wallabies and even bears explain some ‘big cats’ sightings, but not all of them. Australian big cats aren’t just represented by eyewitness accounts and hazy photos, but by some pretty good photos, and also by a number of dead bodies. Let’s look at some of these cases.


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Among the more impressive photos is that taken by Barry Morris in 1978 near Carnarvon in West Australia. It shows a big, black cat walking along the top of a hillside, its long, cylindrical tail held in a curve up over its rump. A puma that escaped from a travelling circus, and lived wild for a time, was shot at St Arnaud in Victoria in 1924 while another puma was shot at Woodend, Victoria, during the 1960s. The Woodend animal was stuffed and then pretty much forgotten about until 2005. And in 1985, a lioness—the ‘Broken Hill lioness’—was shot in New South Wales. This case has become notorious due to its apparent lack of investigation by the Department of Agriculture (Williams & Lang 2010). Remarkably, vocalizations apparently made by large cats living wild in the Australian bush have been caught on tape at least twice.


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Various footprints, scat and large animal kills attributed to big cats have also been recorded [footprint photo below from here]. Williams & Lang (2010) publish many of these. Many of the tracks do look unmistakeably cat-like, and vets, ecologists, professional mammalogists and government officials are on record as saying that large cats are indeed the most likely, or only likely, culprits (Williams & Lang 2010, pp. 253-272).


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As Williams & Lang (2010) explain, some of the more positive assessments (including those penned by Charles Sturt University ecologist Johannes Bauer, Deakin University’s John Henry, and veterinarians Keith Hart and Ron Hynes) have been essentially buried or kept quiet by some of the governmental bodies that have been asked by farmers and stock-owners to investigate. So, there are non-native big cats running around in the Australian outback, at least sometimes.


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Pumas, Moggies, Marsupials: Competing or Overlapping Hypotheses of Origin


The Australian ‘mystery big cat’ phenomenon is made especially interesting by the fact that three very different hypotheses have been invoked to explain the identity of the creatures involved. Some researchers contend that two or even all three of these hypotheses have merit.


Hypothesis #1 is that some or all of the cats are the descendants of military mascots or escapees from circuses, private collections, zoos and so on. They thus represent pumas from the Americas, lions from Africa, leopards from Africa or Asia, and so on. Hypothesis #2 is that feral cats have grown to extraordinary size in the Australian bush, and that these monster "moggies" account for some or all ‘big cat’ sightings. Hypothesis #3—probably to most folks the most extreme and interesting idea—is that some of the animals are not cats at all, but big, cat-like marsupials that either represent new species, or late-surviving members of one of the thylacoleonid (i.e., marsupial lion) taxa.


As mentioned before, it seems apparent that some sightings of Australian big cats really do represent encounters with lions, pumas and members of other species (perhaps including Golden cat, Jaguar and even Tiger). What about hypothesis #2? Various photos and bits of film seem to show feral cats—that is, members of the same species as the domestic cat (Felis catus)—that are extraordinarily big, with shoulder heights of about 60 cm (23.6 in) and total lengths exceeding 1.5 m (4.9 ft).


Two key bits of evidence in particular seem to support the ‘feral mega-cat’ hypothesis. One is the cat shot dead by hunter Kurt Engel in Gippsland, Victoria, in 2005. This animal was claimed to be somewhere round about 1.6 m (5.2 ft) long (in Williams & Lang (2010), Engel says that it was over 2 m (6.5 ft) long in total), with its tail alone being 60 cm (23.6 in) in length.


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The fact that Engel discarded the body and deliberately used forced perspective in his photos of the carcass has not exactly helped add credibility to the case, but a photo published by Williams & Lang (2010) does seem to support these rough measurements. Williams & Lang (2010) cover this case at some length and explain how they helped arrange for DNA testing on tissue from the animal’s tail. These tests (the reports are included in the volume’s appendices) identified the animal as Felis catus.


The second bit of evidence is the so-called ‘Lithgow panther’ footage, filmed in 2001 by Gail and Wayne Pound at Lithgow, New South Wales. After catching sight of a surprisingly large black cat in the scrub near their house, the Pounds decided to film it and managed to get 15 minutes of footage. The cat was in close association with a normal-sized feral cat, yet (as demonstrated by people who visited the site and measured the height of adjacent vegetation) had a shoulder height of about 50 cm and hence was more like a puma in size (shoulder height 60-70 cm / 23.6-27.5 in) than a domestic cat (shoulder height 25-30 cm / 9.8-11.8 in).


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Opinion differs as to whether the existence of these really big feral cats is remarkable or not. It’s at least very interesting, in part because it would mean that something about the Australian ecosystem is encouraging large size in some Australian feral cat populations. And once a cat of any sort approaches or exceeds a meter in total length, people who see it will refer to it as a ‘big cat’. So, some ‘big cats’ are not big cats in the strict sense at all, but big ‘small cats’.


Modern Marsupial Lions and Other Marvels


Hypothesis #3 rests on the idea that a few eyewitnesses have described animals that, while cat-like, supposedly exhibit peculiar, sometimes marsupial-like traits. A few decades ago, the idea that a long-tailed, stripy, leopard-sized Australian animal might exist in Queensland (and perhaps elsewhere) was fairly popular (Heuvelmans 1995). Dubbed the ‘Queensland tiger’, it was regarded by some as a possible living species of marsupial lion (a group of extinct marsupials, properly called thylacoleonids, otherwise thought to have become extinct during the Pleistocene (see these articles for more: Shuker 1989, Healy & Cropper 1994). Alas, the idea that the Queensland tiger was real has mostly fallen away now, given the total absence of material evidence, photos or recent eyewitness accounts.


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(Cryptozoologists Note: While there may not be as many recent eyewitness accounts of sightings of the Queensland tiger, there is still a regular if modest influx of them from Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland, Australia, as evidenced by those sites which have been established to record such sightings.)


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But while belief in the Queensland tiger may have somewhat diminished, it’s thought by some cryptozoologists that various of the black or tan-coloured Australian ‘big cats’ might be marsupial lions too. This idea is presented by both Healy & Cropper (1994) and in Rex Gilroy’s "entertaining" book Mysterious Australia. Among the various tales that Gilroy recounts is one where the witness describes seeing a rear-facing pouch and joey in a big black ‘cat’ (Gilroy 1995). The witness surmised—and Gilroy agreed—that at least some Australian ‘big cats’ are not cats at all, but extant marsupial lions. That’s a fairly interesting conjecture; what a shame that other Australian researchers have failed to record similar accounts, or indeed to verify the existence of the witnesses that Gilroy quoted… but read on.


Williams and Lang devote a chapter to the supposed existence of modern day, thylacoleonid-like predators. Some of the cases in this chapter include Rilla Martin’s "creature", photographed in 1964, and the ‘Jaws’ carcass, found on a beach sometime in the 1980s (Shuker 1996, Williams & Lang 2010) and suggested by some writers to be a dead thylacoleonid. However, as the authors note, it was actually just a dead domestic cat.


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A few accounts, photos and bits of film are highly intriguing in view of ‘hypothesis #3’. Williams & Lang (2010) might not verify Rex Gilroy’s accounts, but they do provide some equally surprising ones. A farmer, searching for a missing cow in 2005, found that it had been severely wounded by a broad-headed predator, present at the scene, that “seemed to have some marsupial-like attributes” being long-bodied, short-legged and long and thick in the tail. The creature had also killed the cow’s calf.


The photo taken in 1981 by Martin Williams as she “wandered down to the lagoon on her Moyston, Victoria property to take photographs one afternoon” (p. 205) is peculiar. The photo isn’t great (the animal is facing away from the photographer and its outlines are hard to demarcate from the waterhole behind it), but the animal’s apparently muscular hindlimbs and short, very slender tail don’t look right for a cat, dog or just about anything else you might think of.


There’s also a very odd piece of film taken in 1994 (stills are provided in Williams & Lang's book) where a stocky, short-tailed animal with a distinctive gait and deep, boxy head runs alongside some overgrown railway tracks. The animal looks unusual and one could probably convince himself that it doesn’t represent a big cat, feral dog or a member of any other known species. However, as is typical for footage of this sort, the animal is at a distance, the footage is fuzzy, and consequently it’s probably not possible to say for sure just what the animal is.


And what to make of the weird, bushy-tailed animal—apparently a predatory marsupial of some sort—described by Gary Opit after his 1969 night-time encounter? Based on Opit’s (not entirely unique) account, the animal couldn’t have been a surviving thylacine or anything known to be alive today (with the possible exception of a giant numbat!) So in some ways, the mystery only deepens!


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Photographs from Queensland (QLD), Victoria (VIC) and New South Wales (NSW) Related to Recently Reported Thylacoleo Sightings.


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Resources


Healy and Cropper, Out of the Shadows 1994, Iron bark Publishing, Sydney


[email protected]


http://uqconnect.net/~zzpclach/ (no longer active)


http://www.newanimal.org/thylacine.htm


http://www.paulclacher.com.au/bigcatwitnesses.htm


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