For decades, the remains of the last Tasmanian tiger to walk this Earth were believed to be lost. It turns out they were just hiding in plain sight the entire time.
The Tasmanian tiger, also known as the thylacine, played a key role in Tasmania’s ecosystem as the only marsupial apex predator of modern times. However, when European settlers arrived on the island in the 1800s, the coyote-sized critter was blamed for killing farmers’ livestock. The shy, semi-nocturnal Tasmanian tiger was hunted to extinction.
The last known thylacine recorded by humans was an old female that died in captivity in the Hobart Zoo on Sept. 7, 1936. Soon after, her remains vanished, and Australian zoologists were left to wonder what ever happened to the last Tasmanian tiger.
Eighty-five years later, two researchers have finally uncovered the answers.
Robert Paddle, a comparative psychologist from the Australian Catholic University, and Kathryn Medlock, honorary curator of vertebrate zoology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), dove into the museum’s archives and managed to track down the remains of the last thylacine, or endling of the species.
What was billed as “one of Tasmania’s most enduring zoological mysteries,” by a press release from TMAG was actually just a case of improper cataloguing, according to Paddle and Medlock’s research. The museum had possessed the remains the entire time, but it was using them in its education department as a specimen to show to children.
According to Paddle, the thylacine endling had been sold to the Hobart Zoo in May 1936 by a local trapper named Elias Churchill.
“The sale was not recorded or publicized by the zoo because, at the time, ground-based snaring was illegal and Churchill could have been fined,” Paddle said.
The last Tasmanian tiger only lived for a few months in the zoo before it died and its body was transferred to TMAG.
“For years, many museum curators and researchers searched for its remains without success, as no thylacine material dating from 1936 had been recorded in the zoological collection, and so it was assumed its body had been discarded,” Paddle added.
But the researchers were able to dig up an unpublished museum taxidermist’s report from 1936/37 that mentioned a thylacine among the specimens he had worked on that year. This triggered a review of all the thylacine skins and skeletons in the TMAG collection and led to the discovery of the endling.
They found the missing specimen in a cupboard in the museum’s education department.
“The thylacine body had been skinned, and the disarticulated skeleton was positioned on a series of five cards to be included in the newly formed education collection overseen by museum science teacher Mr A W G Powell,” Medlock said.
“The skin was carefully tanned as a flat skin by the museum’s taxidermist, William Cunningham, which meant it could be easily transported and used as a demonstration specimen for school classes learning about Tasmanian marsupials.”
But why had the last specimen of this enigmatic species been relegated to a children’s educational tool instead of preserved and displayed? Medlock posits that museum officials at the time didn’t know they had the last Tasmanian tiger on their hands.
“At that time they thought there were still animals out in the bush, in fact, I think the fauna board actually issued a permit for someone to collect one,” Medlock told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I know the museum offered 50 pounds for a thylacine if someone could catch one and bring one in, but no one did.”
TMAG director Mary Mulcahy said the Tasmanian tiger endling will go on display in the museum’s thylacine gallery.
“It is bittersweet that the mystery surrounding the remains of the last thylacine has been solved, and that it has been discovered to be part of TMAG’s collection,” Mulcahy said.
“Our thylacine gallery is incredibly popular with visitors and we invite everyone to TMAG to see the remains of the last thylacine, finally on show for all to see.”