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.
(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).
| "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
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
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
| "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
Ronald Campbell Gunn
Statue in Launceston City Park
- Peter Shanks, 2007.
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".