Thursday, 14 January 2016

Sightings of Thylacines: a Tasmanian coincidence

‘Just keep an eye out for the odd thylacine’, I reminded my wife as we travelled through Tasmania in November, ‘You gained your spurs as a leopard spotter in Botswana, now really show what you can do’. Alas, I have to report, she failed.

As sleet and snow fell and after high winds had knocked out the electricity supply, we admired the collection of thylacine photographs, many of which I had not seen before, in the restaurant of the lodge at Lake St Clair, and wondered whether any of the reports that the thylacine is not extinct were reliable. ‘I really hope so’, was the general conclusion. The conversation turned to reports made by people who knew nothing of the thylacine but who reported sightings that were compatible with their having seen one. And then it was back to U.K. where in my pile of accumulated post was the latest volume of Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. As I started to look through it my eyes fell on the word Tasmania. This is what I then read:

…They were driving in a wilderness area on the western side of Tasmania when they saw an animal they did not recognize cross the road. At the next township they asked a woman what it was. They said they should not have seen such an animal as it was a Tasmanian tiger (ot Tasmanian wolf) and they are extinct! There have been many alleged sightings of the Tasmanian wolf. What distinguishes this one is that neither Professor nor Mrs Whitham knew that such an animal existed before they saw it in Tasmania that day.

Professor Whitham was Gerald Beresford Whitham FRS (1927-2014). the applied mathematician, lately of CALTEC.

The Thylacine skeleton in the Grant Museum at UCL
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Minzoni AA, Smyth NF. Gerald Beresford Whitham 13 December 1927—26 January 2014. 2015. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 61, 557-577.