The Ghosts of Tasmania

So far we’ve covered extinct animals, animals that narrowly escaped extinction, and animals that are on extinction’s doorstep. Here’s a new one: an animal that is extinct, but refuses to die.

It’s a thylacine. People variably call it a Tasmanian Tiger or a Tasmanian Wolf, but it is neither tiger nor wolf. It’s the modern world’s largest marsupial predator. So we’ll call it a thylacine.

Once, thylacines hunted all over the continent, the apex predators of Australia. They had the strongest bite power of any living animal (an honor passed down to its cousin, the Tasmanian Devil), and were one of only two marsupials in which both sexes have pouches. (The male’s pouch was simply to protect his junk while running through undergrowth.) They were sleek, strong, and had a stomach that could distend to fit a small kangaroo.

The dingo, a wild dog introduced by humans millenia ago, practically drove them off the mainland, but they remained on Tasmania. When Europeans settled on the island, they systematically trapped, poisoned, and shot them to protect their sheep. In 1933, the only known thylacines left were put in the Hobart Zoo. When they died in 1936, the species was declared extinct.

Then a funny thing happened: there were sightings of wild thylacines. Unconfirmed sightings. The predator had always been both reclusive and nocturnal, but now it reappeared in glimpses: a dog-like creature running across the road, the telltale stripes caught in the headlights of a jeep. Since 1936, there have been as many as 629 separate unconfirmed sightings in Tasmania and Southern Victoria. In 1982, a researcher with Tasmania Parks & Wildlife claimed he watched one for a full three minutes. In 1995, a ranger with the Parks Department recorded a sighting. Neither could find evidence later; no tracks, no scat, no carcasses left behind. In 2005, a tourist snapped blurry photographs of one, from which experts could confirm nothing.

I do not believe in the supernatural, but know that many things that were once considered “supernatural” have natural explanations. And I don’t believe in Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster, and I think cryptozoology is largely a waste of good biologists, but that cryptozoology is still a valid idea with practical uses. In this case, good money and minds have been spent not looking for mermaids that were really manatees, but in search of a known species that may been pronounced D.O.A. too soon.

Let me offer a perhaps irresponsibly wild hypothesis. I wonder if the thylacine isn’t somehow… flickering in and out of existence. I wonder if it hasn’t become, in effect, Schrodinger’s Thylacine, both dead and alive until observed. The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker of North America seems to be such a species, taunting us from the swamps, even going so far as to “appear” in video before vanishing again. Is there a purgatory between extinction and scientifically-validated existence? Can the hopes and guilt of mankind, paired with the secrets of physics and the unknowable genius of a forest, enact a sort of necromancy? I don’t know. But I can only guess that whatever we extinct in the future will return to haunt us; a flash of orange in the pines long after the Siberian Tiger has followed the thylacine into the museum of our memory.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

5 responses to “The Ghosts of Tasmania

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