(page 1)

    The casual observations made by naturalists, or "stories" (often anecdotal) reported by the public in the Tasmanian press, are some of our earliest historical accounts of the thylacine.  The majority of newspaper reports provide an accurate narrative, whilst others were exaggerations and somewhat sparing with the truth.

    John Gould (1804-1881), the famous naturalist and ornithological illustrator, made the following observations on a pair of thylacines at the London Zoo in his landmark book "The Mammals of Australia" (Gould 1845-63).

    Gould states:

    "The circumstance of a fine pair, male and female, of the Thylacinus cynocephalus being now living in the Gardens of the Zoological Society in the Regents Park, enables me to give the best figure of the animal that has yet appeared; and so great is the interest which attaches to this singular species, that I have been induced to give a representation of its head of the natural size in addition to that of the entire animal on a reduced scale.  Tasmania, better known as Van Diemen's Land, is
the country it inhabits, and so strictly is it confined to that island, that I believe that no instance is on record of it having been found on the neighbouring continent of Australia.  It must be regarded as the most formidable, both of the Marsupalia and of the indigenous mammals of Australia: for although too feeble to make a successful attack on man, it commits sad havoc among the small quadrupeds of the country, and amongst the poultry, and other domestic animals of the settler; even the sheep are not secure from its attacks, which are the more difficult to guard against, as the habits of the animal being nocturnal, they are always at night.  The destruction it deals around has, as a matter of course, called forth the enmity of the settler, and hence in nearly all cultivated districts the animal is nearly extirpated; on the other hand so much of Tasmania still remains in a state of nature, and so much of its forest land still
John Gould - 1849
T. H. Maguire's 1849 portrait of naturalist John Gould (1804-1881).
Photo: Albert R. Mann Library
uncleared, that an abundance of cover still remains in which this animal is secure from the attacks of man; many years must therefore elapse before it can become entirely extinct; in these remote districts it preys upon Halmaturus Billardieri, H. Bennetti, Bandicoots, Echidna, and all the small animals.  In confinement it is excessively shy, and on being observed dashes and leaps about its cage in the most violent manner, uttering a short guttural cry resembling a bark, but whether this sound is also emitted in a state of nature, has not been observed.  Mr Ronald C. Gunn who has had better opportunities than any other scientific man of observing the animal in the wilds, states that it is common in the more remote parts of the colony, and that it is often caught at Woolworth and the Hampshire Hills".
    Gunn's comments to which Gould refers were detailed in a letter from Ronald Gunn (1838) to Sir William J. Hooker (botanist and first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew) and by him transmitted to the British Museum of Natural History.

    Gunn states:

    "The Thylacinus cynocephalus is called in Van Diemen's land indiscriminately by the names of Tiger and Hyaena.  It is common in the remote parts of the colony, and they are accordingly often caught at Woolnorth and the Hampshire Hills.  I have seen some so large and powerful, that a number of dogs will not face one.  They are usually nocturnal in their attacks on sheep, but they also
Ronald Campbell Gunn (1808-1881)
Ronald Campbell Gunn (1808-1881).
Statue in Launceston City Park - Peter Shanks, 2007.
move about in the daytime; and upon these occasions, perhaps from their rather imperfect vision by day, their pace is very slow.  A number of skins could be procured if much wanted, or their skulls perhaps more easily.  In Murray's Encyclopaedia of Geography it is stated, p. 1485, that its tail is compressed, which suggests the supposition that it is used in swimming.  The tail is not compressed, neither is it aquatic in its habits.  They are most numerous inland, and when I was recently at the Hampshire Hills two were caught in one week at the sheep, twenty miles from the sea.  As to their feeding on fish, I hardly know how it could have been ascertained, unless the fish had been previously caught and given to one, when, like many carnivorous quadrupeds, it is probable it would eat them". 

    Gunn then makes a cautious comment to naturalists: 

    "Deductions are frequently too hastily drawn by naturalists (or persons professing to be such) from isolated facts.  That the Thylacinus may often be seen on the sea coast, as also every other species of quadrupeds, is quite probable, and may once or twice have been seen eating a dead fish thrown up by the sea; but as to its fishing, it is out of the question".

back to: Scientific Discovery and Taxonomy (page 3) return to the section's introduction forward to: Early Recollections (page 2)

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