Lost remains of last Tasmanian tiger found in museum cupboard after 85 years

The discovery of an unpublished museum taxidermist's report dated 1936/37 mentioned a thylacine among the list of specimens worked on during the year.
Deena Theresa
Illustration of the thylacine
Illustration of the thylacine

CoreyFord/iStock 

The last Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, died in captivity at Beaumaris Zoo on the Queen’s Domain, Hobart, in 1936. For decades, no one knew where the thylacine remains were located.

Until now.

In a paper soon to be published in Australian Zoologist, researchers Robert Paddle and Kathryn Medlock revealed that the remains were hiding at the Tasmanian Museum and Art gallery (TMAG) in Australia, where they were unidentified for around 85 years. The remains had first come into the collections of TMAG in 1936.

Interestingly, Paddle also discovered that this thylacine was not the animal previously identified and celebrated as the last thylacine in photographs and films. That one was, in fact, the penultimate thylacine.

Lost remains of last Tasmanian tiger found in museum cupboard after 85 years
The remains came into the collections of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1936 but had until now remained unidentified.

The last thylacine was captured by a trapper and sold to the zoo

The thylacine was largely extinct on the Australian mainland by around 2,000 years ago, but it survived in Tasmania. However, being an apex predator didn't help.

European settlers in the 1800s blamed the animal for livestock losses and hunted the animal, driving it extinct.

It turns out the last thylacine was an old female animal captured by trapper Elias Churchill from the Florentine Valley and sold to the zoo in the middle of May 1936. "The sale was not recorded or publicized by the zoo because, at the time, ground-based snaring was illegal, and Churchill could have been fined. The thylacine only lived for a few months, and when it died, its body was transferred to TMAG," Paddle said in a statement.

"For years, many museum curators and researchers searched for its remains without success, as no thylacine material dating from 1936 had been recorded in the zoological collection, and so it was assumed its body had been discarded," he said.

Thanks to the discovery of an unpublished museum taxidermist's report dated 1936/37 that mentioned thylacine among the list of specimens worked on during the year, a fresh review of the entire Tasmanian tiger collection revealed the identity.

The remains will be on display in the museum's thylacine gallery

"The thylacine body had been skinned, and the disarticulated skeleton was positioned on a series of five cards to be included in the newly formed education collection overseen by museum science teacher Mr. A W G Powell," Medlock said.

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"The arrangement of the skeleton on the cards allowed museum teachers to explain thylacine anatomy to students. The skin was carefully tanned as a flat skin by the museum’s taxidermist, William Cunningham, which meant it could be easily transported and used as a demonstration specimen for school classes learning about Tasmanian marsupials," she continued.

According to Mary Mulcahy, TMAG director, the last thylacine's tanned flat skin and disarticulated skeleton are on display in the museum's thylacine gallery.

"It is bittersweet that the mystery surrounding the remains of the last thylacine has been solved and that it has been discovered to be part of TMAG’s collection," Mulcahy said.