Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tasmanian locals

I was thinking of devoting this blog post to the thylacine, the ‘Tasmanian Tiger’, but I like to illustrate my posts with photographs I’ve taken myself. I did keep an eye out on my recent visit to the Tasmanian wilderness, but - *sigh* - no Tiger was to be seen. The last know specimen died in captivity in a Hobart zoo in the 1930s, the unusual animal having been hunted to extinction. While it’s sadly not unusual for man to hunt entire species to extinction, it usually happens because they are wanted as food. In the case of the poor thylacine, it just got a bum rap. Farmers in the early colony despised it as a killer of their sheep, when in truth the Tier probably preferred its natural native prey, and was merely scavenging sheep killed by dogs. Despite being called a ‘tiger’, a ‘wolf’, and other scary names, it was actually a rather docile nocturnal beast.

Certainly it was not a tiger, and, despite a dog-like face, only vaguely related to the dog. Part cat, part dog, part hyena, it was a marsupial which gave birth to embryo young which were suckled in a pouch. It had a stiff tail which extended solidly from its back, solid stripes across its back, huge jaws, and no natural predators. Till the English settlers arrived. These days, the Tasmanian Tiger is the symbol of the state of Tasmania, which has regretted the demise of this unique creature since the day the last one died. Or was it the last one? Some believe that in the unexplored forests of Tasmania, the thylacine has remained hidden, and survives to this day....

Recommended reading: “Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger” by David Owen (2003)

Koala girls: not Tasmanian, but how could I resist?


Possum sighting
So, failing a photo of a thylacine (so far), I draw your attention to some other rather more common Australian marsupials - the wombat, the wallaby and the possum. All give birth to embryo babies which are suckled in pouches, and all can be seen abroad in the Tasmanian wilderness. And then there’s the interesting subset, the monotremes, an ancient line which has nevertheless proven a great survivor: it’s two exemplars being the platypus and the echidna. These guys (or, rather, girls) lay eggs, and then suckle the hatched young. Platypus are almost as hard to photograph as the thylacine, so I had to be content with an echidna sighting.

Echidna: minding its own business.

But a review of Tasmania’s marsupials, however brief, would be woefully incomplete without mention of that other wrongly-maligned creature, the Tasmanian Devil. Although it would be drawing a long bow to describe Devils as ‘cute’, they are quite shy, nocturnal, rarely hunt (preferring to scavenge), and that roaring thing they do? Just show, folks. With jaws as strong as  theirs, if they were to fight in earnest there’d be no Devil left standing. And who gave them such a pejorative name, I wonder?

"Ozzie", a bred-in-captivity Devil. The hope of his species.

These days, with the thylacine (presumably) gone, the devil is at the top of the food chain, with no natural predators. Even man has left these little guys alone - I guess they don’t taste great, their pelts aren’t big enough to be useful, and nobody has slandered them as sheep-killers. They’d be doing great, if they weren’t being devastated by a hideous facial tumour that is killing off great swathes of them. No-one really knows where it came from,but it is a cancer and is exacerbated, at least, by a small gene pool. No-one knows of a cure, either, so efforts are being centred around trying to separate affected and unaffected populations; and breeding healthy devils in captivity. Which is how I was able to photographs these for you, at the Cradle Mountain Devil breeding facility.

Just for show, folks.

And so the sadly maligned Thylacine becomes the symbol of the state that hounded it to extinction. Probable extinction.

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