It’s always difficult to write a story about the Tasmanian tiger without feeling sad at the end … sad that the thylacine is probably extinct, sad about how it became extinct, sad that no excursions so far have found concrete, irrefutable evidence that a few still exist. Even the thought that a well-preserved pelt might contain enough DNA to reintroduce the species is sad, not just for the reasons why it’s no longer here but because, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves, it won’t be the same animal. Nonetheless, the news about one such pelt offers that hope, plus a look at the beautiful colors this majestic animal had that the few black-and-white photos in existence can’t portray.
"I was aware that it was a very nice pelt, but not knowing the global situation with the state other ones were around the world I wasn't clear on how important it was - but it sounds like it's really one of the best that's still preserved anywhere."
Alan Tennyson, curator of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (or ‘Te Papa’, which means ‘Our place’), tells RNZ (Radio New Zealand) how a pelt bought in 1923 by Whanganui taxidermist and collector Archibald Robertson ended up in his museum. After his death, Robertson’s family displayed the skin in their Kahutara taxidermy gallery, where it was seen in 2019 by scientists from the Lazarus Project, which at the time was attempting to bring back Australia’s extinct southern gastric-brooding frog (Rheobatrachus) using a somatic cell (not sperm or egg) and a relative species of the frog. That process but could possibly be used for the thylacine but there are no suitable related species. Tennyson informed David Thurrowgood, a conservator at the Queen Victoria Museum in Tasmania, who arranged for the pelt to be purchased by the National Museum of Australia.
"So I was able to look at the hair in quite a different way and there are eight different types of hair on a thylacine. The rich chocolate browns on the stripes and honey colours, down to really beautiful greys on the underside of the animal, indicate how beautiful it would have been. Some of the hairs are hollow, a bit like other species who live in the cold, and use those fine pockets of air to keep themselves warm and be well adapted to the Tasmanian climate."
Thurrowgood explained to the ABC that most pelts were treated with DNA-destroying arsenic or mercury, but whoever did this one used a method that allowed long DNA fragments to stay intact. That plus the care taken by the Robertson family kept the skin in colorful shape. (See a photo here.) As expected, Thurrowgood would like to bring those colors back to life, so he is comparing the DNA to samples at the University of Melbourne. Meanwhile, Tennyson admits he doesn’t believe any live thylacines are left. He would prefer that people instead look for more samples, photos and other relics still hidden away in small museums or collections. While that won’t bring them back, it offers some hope.
"It's just amazing to hear about new specimens of extinct things turning up, and ones this one preserved which are hiding away in corners, no doubt there's plenty of other treasures hidden in small museums around the place which we still haven't found.
It's important that we keep an interest in these extinct animals, because the more we can learn about why they went extinct helps us understand current conservation issues, and hopefully leads to better conservation outcomes for other species in the future."
Hopefully … but still sad.