One of the driving forces in the competing quests to either find a living Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) or bring the species back via gene editing and cloning is the guilt humans feel over driving the animal to apparent extinction in 1936 with development and rampant hunting. As great as that guilt is today, it wasn’t enough to save the remains of the last known thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) which died in the Hobart Zoo on September 7, 1936. The female thylacine’s skin and skeleton were thought to have been sent after her death to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), but were soon reported missing … and had never been found. That changed this week when a pair of researchers finally discovered them … and you won’t believe where they were. Also, if you were under the impression that the last Tasmanian tiger was a male named Benjamin, they explained that too.
"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.”
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery curator of vertebrate zoology Dr. Kathryn Medlock told ABC News that the problem of the missing remains began when the female died because no one believed at the time she was the last Tasmanian tiger. The museum itself was offering a 50 pounds reward for a living thylacine – no one collected it even though Dr. Medlock herself believes there were still a few left in the bush at the time.
The story of ‘Benjamin’ is as sad as the thylacine’s carelessly lost remains. It was captured sometime in 1930 or 1931 and a number of people laid claim to the act – records show that Elias Churchill was the most vocal about it but later research attributes it to either northwest Tasmania sheep farmer James Millar Kaine or the so-called Delphine capture of two thylacines near Waratah and the Savage River National Park. Whoever brought it in, records show that the last years of ‘Benjamin’ were abysmal – it is believed the thylacine died of neglect and exposure to the extreme Tasmanian heat during the day and freezing temperatures at night. The last known motion picture footage of ‘Benjamin’ is 45 seconds of black-and-white footage showing it in its pen – a colorized version is said to be close to what the last living thylacine looked like. Sadly, the film was better taken care of than the animal’s remains.
"For years, many museum curators and researchers searched for its remains without success, as no thylacine material dating from 1936 had been recorded. It was assumed its body had been discarded."
Thylacine researcher and author Robert Paddle told the BBC he worked with Medlock to search for the lost remains. The Hobart Zoo was no help ... also known as Beaumaris Zoo, it closed in 1937 due to – no surprise here – financial problems, and the site was used by the Royal Australian Navy for a fuel storage depot. Hobart's senior cultural heritage officer Brendan Lennard revealed in a 2018 interview that the misnaming of the last thylacine was a “furphy” – Australian slang for an erroneous or improbable story. He says a person in the 1960s who claimed to have worked at the Hobart Zoo spread the “furphy” that the last Tasmanian tiger was a male named Benjamin. Lennard said an interview of Alison Reid, daughter of Arthur Reid, the last curator of the Hobart Zoo, verified that no one ever called it by that name. Paddle was so that the “furphy” is still believed to be true that he called the person who started it a "bullshit artist."
"It's an unfortunate myth. It's time to remove it from the literature. It's so appalling Kathryn [Medlock] and I haven't even mentioned it in the [research] paper. We just want people to forget it please."
Speaking of the research paper, that is where Medlock and Paddle detailed what really happened to the remains and how they discovered them. The pair found an unpublished taxidermist's report which led to a review of the museum's collections. They found the missing female skeleton and skin in a cupboard in the museum's education department. However, before it was placed there the pelt went on tours all around Australia as part of a travelling exhibit on the extinct species. It was a star of the exhibit, according to Medlock.
"It was chosen because it was the best skin in the collection, we didn't know then it was the last one. This particular skin and skeleton that we've discovered has rarely been on display."
Fortunately, for those who wish to feel guilty in front of the last known thylacine, the skin and skeleton are now on display in the TMAG’s zoological section in the Hobart suburb of Rosny. Whatever the poor and famous creature’s name really was, she is now in better care than during her last stay in Hobart.
"We've got them stored in special acid-free boxes and it's dark, the conditions are good. The display case that the skin is in now here, it's a display case that's specifically built to preserve specimens, prevent fading, all of those sorts of things. We want them to last, so they're looked after very carefully."
That’s a noble gesture, but still not as good as having a live thylacine. The media reports do not state if the skin or skeleton can be used in the de-extinction project currently underway to de-extinct a thylacine. Scientists from the University of Melbourne TIGRR (Thylacine Integrated Genetic Restoration Research) Lab and Colossal Biosciences in the U.S. are working to take stem cells from a living marsupial species with similar DNA – possibly a dunnart, which is a mouse-sized species - and use gene-editing to create a thylacine or at least a thylacine-like creature. That project is still 10 years from completion, so there is plenty of time for one of the many alleged sightings of Tasmanian tigers in both Tasmania and Australia to pay off with a live animal or family of them.
Guilt is truly a powerful motivator. Perhaps we should use it to come up with a suitable name for the last known specimen of the Tasmanian tiger. Remember, it’s a ‘she’.