News & Stories

Honouring the extinct, one thylacine at a time

The thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) might be extinct, but at least 764 specimens still exist in museums and collections around the world. Through an exploration of the lives, deaths and afterlife as museum specimens of individual thylacines, a new project at the University of Tasmania will make one of our most iconic extinct animals more publicly visible. It also aims to help protect other species from extinction by helping us to mourn the thylacine properly.

The last thylacine died in 1936 on a September night in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo, locked out of its sleeping shelter as the temperature fell below zero. It’s a sad chapter in the canon of extinction stories in Australia, where more than 30 known mammal species have become extinct since European settlement, giving us the highest mammal extinction rate in the world.  

Dr Hannah Stark is one of two chief investigators on the Australian Research Council Discovery Project called Beyond Extinction: Reconstructing the Global Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) Archive. She describes the thylacine’s extinction as a story of “Tasmania in the world”.

This animal had a global life. Outside Tasmania, it was exhibited in zoos in Adelaide, Melbourne, London, Liverpool, Berlin, Paris, Cologne, Antwerp, Washington and New York.

The project, with co-chief investigator Associate Professor Katrina Schlunke, will examine thylacine specimens and other archival materials in museums and collections globally. “How do we engage people to think not just about that scale of extinction but about the individual animals becoming extinct?” Dr Stark said.

Think about this, for example, 25 thylacines were shipped to the London Zoo. Five were dead on arrival, one died eight days later, and none were successfully bred.

Zoo’s Death Books

“In the London Zoo archives, there are the Death Books, which are the zookeepers’ logs of all the animals that died and how they died. It’s amazing when you go and look at the concealed histories of all these Australian animals, many of which died of respiratory complaints in the terrible London air.”

At the Museum of Natural History in London drawers full of thylacine specimens give the sense of “an evacuation of Australian animals to imperial centres,” Dr Stark said.  “There is something incredibly affecting about coming face to face with the specimens in the museum.”

Most of this international archive is not on display. Many of the specimens are kept carefully preserved in cupboards in collecting institutions. “So as much as anything this is a project about making that very fragile and irreplaceable archive more available to an interested public.”

Associate Professor Schlunke said that in discovering and telling the richest possible stories about a selection of these specimens, the researchers hoped to offer new insights into extinction, creating a resource that might help us to better respond to current extinctions. “By the end of this project we hope the world will better appreciate that extinction is a human problem,” she said.

‘Dull edge’ of extinction

“We want people to think about extinction not as a single act but as something that the theorist Thom Van Dooren calls a ‘dull edge’ - it happens not through a single event but through a whole series of events that lead to the death of the last animal.”

As a cultural studies project, the research will examine the thylacine’s place in literature and art. Dr Stark said some extraordinary artefacts existed, such as the thylacine that can be ridden on the Dodo Manège, a carousel of extinct and endangered animals in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

The researchers are aiming to find new ways to engage the public with the thylacine’s story through exhibiting images of some of the specimens from international collections. “The project examines the powerful role that museums have in shaping public sentiment. We want to position extinct animal displays as sites of emotional intensity, rather than mere collections of commodified objects,” Associate Professor Schlunke said.

The research project will span three years, and towards the end of this time, a public exhibition about the extinction and mourning of the thylacine will be held in Hobart. The knowledge revealed through the research will also be disseminated through publications and conference presentations to the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums), as well as being published in academic literature.

Dr Stark and Associate Professor Schlunke have received an Australian Research Council Discovery grant for $213,210 to undertake the project.

Online exhibition: the University of Tasmanias Morris Miller Library website features an online exhibition, Imaging the Thylacine From Trap to Laboratory.