(page 4)

Skin Specimens (continued):

    The partially stuffed specimen skin of a young male thylacine in the collection of the British Museum of Natural History is worthy of special mention, being the youngest specimen skin known to exist.  The specimen was collected by William Frederick Petterd in 1887, and was approximately 3-4 months of age at its death.  It is interesting to note that the tail of the pup is almost black in colour, as is the case in Gleeson's portrait of the pups in the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

BMNH 1887.5.18.9
Pouch young specimen skin BMNH 1887.5.18.9.  Courtesy: British Museum of Natural History.
Source: International Thylacine Specimen Database (2013).

    A thylacine skin [USNM 155408] in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. is unique testament to a level of sexual aggression in the species.  In 1905, a female thylacine on display at the Washington Zoo (the sole surviving member of a family group first exhibited on the 3rd September 1902), was introduced to a newly acquired male.  As an unrelated pair, the zoo was no doubt hoping for a successful pairing that might have resulted in young.  Initially, the thylacines were kept separated at feeding times and during the night to prevent any potential confrontation.  On the 7th October 1905, the keeper W. H. Blackburne noted in the "Daily Report of the Animal Department" that the male attacked the female on the morning of the 6th October and inflicted damage to her ear and head: 

    "Tasmanian wolf male half of one ear bitten off and a bud cut to the head - The Tasmanian wolves have been the best of friends for the past two months.  I have been careful in regards to getting them accustomed to each other; they have always been kept separated at feeding time and during the night until I felt sure they were safe before I would leave them together overnight - the fighting occurred about 11am".

    The injuries described by Blackburne are clearly visible on the head of the preserved skin (below left).

head detail of skin USNM 155408
Head detail of skin USNM 155408.
Courtesy: Smithsonian Institute.
Source: International Thylacine Specimen Database (2013).
specimen skin MNHP 1891-327
Specimen skin MNHP 1891-327.
Courtesy: Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle.
Photo: N. Ayliffe.  Source: International Thylacine Specimen Database (2013).

    The skin of a male thylacine (MNHP 1891-327) (above right) exhibited at the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris from the 17th April 1886 to 31st March 1891 warrants brief mention.  The skin was chemically prepared for taxidermy, but for reasons unknown, the mounting process was not completed.  The skin survives in the museum's collection to this day, but is in a fragile state of preservation.

    Towards the end of the eighteenth century and throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, perfect thylacine skins for institutional collections were becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.  Dr. Bob Paddle (2012) asserts that the reason for the scarcity of good quality skins was the effect of disease on thylacine populations.  It is known that an epizootic disease of unknown origin swept across Tasmania from its initial appearance on the east coast in 1896, traversing the island, and arriving on the west coast in 1901.  The disease affected a number of marsupi-carnivores, including thylacines.  One of the characteristics of the disease was bleeding skin lesions with varying degrees of hair loss.  If this was significant, it would have rendered the skins unsuitable for museum display.  Paddle (2012) notes that William McGowan, the Superintendant of the City Park Zoo (Launceston), expressed his concerns about obtaining good quality skins in a letter to the National Museum in Victoria dated 21st June 1909:

    "Complete skeletons" from thylacines possessing "damaged or rotten skins" were available, but that fine, entire specimens of the species were now almost impossible to find". 

    Paddle (2012) cites the comments of Herbert Scott, Director of the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston, on the difficulty in obtaining good quality skins from trappers:

    "Scott commented upon the recent difficulty of obtaining thylacine specimens for the museum from trappers, offering 7/6 for the body of a thylacine, more than doubling the price to 17/6 if the skin was in a fit state for preservation (letter 10/5/1899) - such adult skins, no matter the quality, having already raised for the trapper at least £1 from the government bounty.  He apologized to his professional colleagues for the necessity of now sending less-than-perfect specimens to other museums as representatives of the species - "I think it worth sending a damaged animal... (as) good specimens are rare and not easy to obtain" - and noting that the most recent thylacine dying in Launceston Zoo was "in poor condition and fit for nothing" (letter 3/8/1901)".

    Paddle (2012) quotes from a letter by James Kershaw (National Museum of Victoria) to Herbert Scott (Queen Victoria Museum) dated 4th June 1903, in which he states that the museum is willing to take poor quality specimens:

    "The National Museum of Victoria, anxious for any additional thylacine specimens, was prepared to take such poor condition specimens off the hands of the Queen Victoria Museum, and were pleased to note how by exercising care, we have been able to save the skin, which showed traces of mange". 

    Paddle (2012) notes that of the last nine thylacines exhibited at Adelaide Zoo between 1897 and 1902, only one skin was deemed suitable for preservation:

    "The zoo destroyed the skin and post-cranial skeletons of two of these specimens, and not even the skull was preserved from a third death.  Six specimens were considered at the zoo to be probably in good-enough condition to be donated to the South Australian Museum and it is possible to specifically identify five of these in the Museum's current collection.  While the skeletal material was preserved from all five specimens, only one of the skins was deemed worthy of preservation by museum staff". 

    Paddle concludes that the loss of thylacines at the Adelaide Zoo correlates with the record of the spread of the epizootic disease in Tasmania: 

    "The known preservation of only one skin from these last nine specimens is most unusual and strongly suggestive of their presentation with significant pelagic damage". 

    Paddle's evidence of disease as a factor in the collapse of the thylacine population is convincing.  It is supported by the findings of Sleightholme & Campbell (2015) in their paper on 20th century thylacine populations, by evidence from zoo populations, and by the absence of specimens from museum collections.

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