The Thylacine and the Tasmanian Devil, victims of Europeans and dingoes
- Benjamin, the last Thylacine photographed by Dr. David Fleay in it’s tiny pen at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Dec. 19th 1933
- © DR - internet- Dr. David Fleay
The Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) and the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) were still living all over Australia a few thousand years ago. They both survived after the arrival of humans 45,000 to 50,000 years ago, contrairy to the Australian Megafauna which strangely disappeared soon after this “arrival”. But, when the Dingo (Canis lupus dingo) reached the Australian continent 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, firstly as a domestic dog - but some of them going back to the wild -, it was a fatal turn for this marsupial everywhere except in Tasmania where the Dingo was not introduced. Much more recently, the Europeans’ arrival and settlement lead to the extinction of the Thylacine at the beginning of the XXth century. Also, we cannot ignore the plight of the Australia’s aboriginal inhabitants of this Southern island, voluntarily exterminated during the XIXth century. The degree of similarity between the destinies of these marsupials and aboriginals is rather disturbing.
The Australian’s largest carnivorous marsupial is an ENdangered species
Actually, the Devil is Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial, even though if he is not a big animal, weighing around 10 kilos. A strange little predator, clumsy in his way of walking, the Devil is able to hunt but he is also a scavenger that feeds on dead animals along the roadsides. The Devil can smell you from kilometres away thanks to his keen sense of smell. His screech is extremely loud and disturbing, particularly if you don’t see him around, but you will hear him ! Despite the uncertainty related to population estimations, his population might have grown from a few thousand individuals to more than one hundred thousand during the XXth century, without any clear explanations of such a population growth.
Nevertheless, since 1996 when the facial cancer called DFTD standing for “Devil Facial Tumor Disease” was dicovered - the disease is transmetted by allograft when an animal bites another -, all the indicators of the population status are in decline and the current population could already be only at 10 to 20% of the previous level. Some pestimistic predictions consider that the devil’s extinction could occur within the 2 to 3 coming decades ; others say that there are still Devils while most of the previous simulations predicted his extinction before 2015.
Locally, a true mobilisation took place with the establishments of captive breeding units away from risks areas (infected by the DFTD), i.e. about 600 individuals in different places, but also with the introduction of safe animals on small islands off Tasmania’s coasts and more fundamental research into the disease itself, the ways of its transmission and the immune system of the Devils. It was also necessary to admit that the biology and ecology of the species itself were in fact still not well known. We begin to work on it while the situation is far from flourishing. All this is complex, requires substantial means: the tests to decide whether an individual is healthy or not are not perfect, and medical research has, in part, diversed into applications in human cancer, certainly interesting, but not directly dedicated to the Devil. In fact, there is little public money to study and fight the DFTD tumor.
To learn more, you can read about « Save the Tasmanian Devil program » at the website: www.tassiedevil.com.au.
“The Devil is more interesting dead than alive”
Perhaps most surprising is the statement by a former Environment Minister in the state of Tasmania who allegedly said, to justify the absence or modesty of public funds intended to fight the Devil’s disease : “The Devil is more interesting dead than alive”. The fact is that when travelling in Tasmania today you have a curious impression by seeing everywhere the use of the Thylacine, officially extinct for about 80 years. The Thylacine is everywhere : on beer cans, on murals, on the logo of a hotel chain, on tourist signs in the city to point out discovery walks… The Thylacine has become a trademark, a well-known and recognised Tasmanian identity, which may make the happy owners profit, without any of the disadvantages associated with the animal.
It’s too late for the Thylacine, but maybe not for the Devil : we would have to protect spaces for him to live in peace, there would be constraints to local economic development, we would declare damage in farms, farmers and hunters would complain, local elected officials would support them, conservation associations would step up to the plate, etc...
Same fight as the Bear and the Wolf in France?
Replacing the Thylacine and the Devil with the Wolf and the Bear, no matter what the order is, is quite reminiscent of what is happening in France, and unfortunately of what is more and more evident behind the official speeches. “We” don’t want them. “Progress” is seen as contradictory to a return of these species, eliminated or almost extinct, after centuries of campaigns of destruction and having the gall to point out the tip of their muzzle again. Regardless of the ecological, biological, economic or even social data, it is cultural.
They must disappear. In France the lieutenants of louveterie survive the Wolf’s extinction. With the Wolf’s return in 1992, there has been no question of removing this organisation, despite the more recent structures set up like the ONCFS for example. It is not just the electoral mandates that are accumulated in France, or perhaps this cumulation should be considered in a very broad sense.
Everyone loves the Wolf in Perrault’s tales, it is easy to use the Bear’s image to sell Pyrenean cheeses in the Paris area, but Wolves and Bears are not welcome here, that is to say “at home”. There is one outstanding question. In Tasmania, since we’re also talking about the Thylacine and the Devil, it seems difficult to isolate their fate from what happened to the Aboriginals. What would be the most relevant analogy in France?
Some extraordinary creatures from Tasmania
Vombatus ursinus can reach up to 1,30 meters in length and weigh 40 kilos. There are tree species : the common Wombat, the Northern hairy-nosed Wombat or yaminon (Lasiorhinus krefftii) and the Southern hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons). The Wonbat has some particularities : at the bottom of his back, he has a hard bone. If he is attacked by a dog or other predator, he will huddle head forward and let only his posterior appear. His predator will break his teeth on this bone! But he also knows how to flee and can run up to 40 km/h. He spends most of his days in a cold burrow, which he dug and in which he sleeps up to 16 hours a day. In captivity, we will often see him on his back, with his legs in the air! In the evening, he wakes up and goes feeding on grass. The Dingo preys on Wombats. Men also hunt them because, they say, the burrows they dig and the grass they eat harm “their” land. He is threatened with extinction although protected; but he is a regular victim of vehicles and diseases (scabies).
He can spend up to 6 hours grazing before returning to his burrow that he finds thanks to his feces! Besides, his poop is ... cubic! In November 2018 in Atlanta, an international team led by the Georgia Institute of Technology, USA, presented its work on the unique form of wombat droppings, during the 71rst Congress of the American Physics Society. It is the variations in the elasticity of the intestinal walls of this Australian marsupial that allow the formation of the only known cubic droppings of the animal kingdom. « Humans have « only two methods to make cubes – we grind or cut them – », and the wombat casings contain a third way of manufacturing, that will inspire production processes. The wombat uses its droppings to mark its territory. Would cubic droppings be more resistant to the wind?
The Tiger Quoll
The Tiger Quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), also known as the Ancient Skeleton, the Dusty Grandpa, the I’m So Old or the Mungo Librarian, is a carnivorous marsupial, native to Australia, and of the Tasmania’s Devil and Thylacine’s family. He has a thick reddish-brown fur with white spots all over his body. He is about 35 to 75 cm long, without counting a tail that can reach 50 cm. Females are smaller and lighter than males.
The Tiger Quoll made his come-back to Australia in February 2016. This small carnivorous was extinct for more than 50 years. The 14 animals that were reintroduced are native to Tasmania where the species survives in the wild, thanks to the absence of predators like Foxes or Cats, and Buffalo-Goats, an invasive species whose venon is lethal for the Tiger Quoll that eat it. The loss of their natural habitat also contributed significantly to the decline of the species, as well as hunting and Dingoes. The problem should no longer arise as the release took place in the heart of the Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, a nature reserve where a eucalyptus forest close to Australia’s original ecosystem is being restored.
The reintroduction is an important step for Professor Adrian Manning of the Australian National University in charge of the operation. “Our goal is not only to restore a healthy and diverse population, but also to undertake a study to determine the best way to import other species in order to improve the chances of future reintroductions in the main Australian territory”, he said to the Guardian. To this end, the released animals were all equipped with GPS collars so that they could follow their progress. In 2018, an additional 17 Tiger Quolls were released in Booderee National Park, located in southeastern Australia. The two NGOs (Aussie Ark and Global Wildlife Conservation) have just released 20 Tiger Quolls at the end of May. They plan to reintroduce 52 more during the year, this time in Barrington Tops National Park.
The Eastern barred Bandicoot
Perameles gunnii, threatened with extinction, is a small marsupial native to Tasmania and Victoria. He has a silky fur and long ears. He is about 25 to 40 cm long, with a 10cm long tail. He weights about 1-2kg : the Tasmanian Bandicoot is a little bit larger than his Australian cousin. He has a slender, elongated snout with moustaches. His coat, brown grey, bears on the back half of the pale bands that gave it his name. Belly, feet and tail are white. He feeds on earthworms that he spots with his developed sense of smell and unearths with his powerful paws, other invertebrates, fungi and roots. The male occupies a rather large area, in comparison with that of the females. A solitary animal, he “frequents” the females during the breeding season. The species is essentially nocturnal. The Bandicoot emerges from his nest at dusk to look for his food. He uses his long nose to dig deep into the ground and digs when he finds food. In the state of Victoria in Southern Australia, it is estimated that there remains a small population of about 150 individuals. Conservation efforts are implemented by associations. The technique involves putting up barriers to protect these small groups from introduced predatory species such as Red Foxes and Herring Cats. The benefit of these barriers is also to limit the spread of infectious diseases. In Tasmania, his population is classified as vulnerable by IUCN, but he occupies larger territories, not threatened by his main predator, the Fox, which does not inhabit the island.
Monotremes: Echidnean and Platypus
They are mammals that have hair, lay eggs and then breastfeed their young. There are only 5 species of monotreme in the world: four species of Echidnas and one of Platypus.
The short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglosus aculeatus) is covered with a thicker fur under his spines than his Australian cousins. With a length of 45cm and a weight of 4.5kg, his burrowing legs are at the front armed with powerful claws made for digging. He has a small mouth, with a thin jaw, without teeth but provided with a long sticky tongue with which he catches insects and arthropods. Echidnas live throughout Australia (depending on the region, he is more or less “blond”) and in Tasmania. During the mating season, in winter, they sometimes travel in convoy: a female followed by several males eager to court her! When the rainy season arrives, the Echidnea falls into lethargy and can remain without eating for more than 2 months. Did you know the he can live about 50 years?
The Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a semiaquatic egg-laying mammal : he looks like an otter with a duck beak! The improbable biology of this ancient creature was so unexpected that, when he was discovered by the early settlers, the scientists of the time all thought it was a bad joke. He is one of the rare poisonous mammals: the male carries on his hind legs a sting that can release venom capable of paralyzing a human leg or even killing a dog. The Platypus inhabits the waterways of Eastern Australia and Tasmania, and his presence is a sign of good river health. A male can thus possess up to 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) of river banks that he shares with 3 to 4 females. But to see him, you will have to be patient : the Platypus comes out mainly at dawn and dusk, and his discretion pushes him to flee to hide at the slightest alert. You can see him from quite a distance and the water reflections make them a little hard to see without binoculars. He spends an average of one minute underwater and ten seconds on the surface sorting, chewing and swallowing what he has harvested underwater. Tasmanian Platypus are estimated to weigh up to 3 kg compared to about 1 kg for those (Northern) of mainland Australia and have been separated for a long time. Maybe one day science will classify them as two species!?