Saturday, 10 January 2015

"The Tasmanian Tiger: Extinct or Extant?" - a Review

Rebecca Lang (editor)(2014), The Tasmanian Tiger: Extinct or Extant?", Strange Nation Publishing, available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
     As I pointed out in an earlier post, the extinction of various bandicoots and wallabies, not to mention those species which are holding on to the edge of the precipice by their little claws, has failed to register on most Australians, but the loss of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, has really touched a raw nerve.
     Now, Rebecca Lang, co-author of Australian Big Cats and co-founder of Strange Nation Publishing, has assembled an array of contributors to express their opinion as to whether this iconic marsupial is now completely extinct, or whether it still clings to existence in some place or other.
     And since it appears to have been taken for granted that I would end up writing a review, I suppose I had better make two things clear from the beginning:
     First disclaimer: I am one of the contributors.
     Second disclaimer: I know the editor and some of the contributors, and those I don't know I nevertheless respect. However, a reviewer should, ideally, attempt to be completely objective - indeed, brutally honest. That sounds like a good way to lose friends and make enemies, and I now understand how some professionals, working in a very limited field, end up getting an easy run through the peer review process. With all this in mind, let us continue.
     The book starts with a foreword by Dr Karl Shuker and an introduction by the editor. With regard to the chapters -
     (1) The case for an extant thylacine population in Tasmania, by Col Bailey. The facing page of this chapter consists of two photographs of thylacine paws: one preserved at Oxford University, and the other from an animal allegedly shot near Adamsfield, Tasmania in the 1990s. The two really do look similar, and if the second one was not obtained in the manner described, it is hard to see how it could have got into the possession of a member of the public.
     Mr Bailey is a veteran thylacine investigator. It began in 1967 when he saw what he thought was a thylacine at, of all places, the Coorong lagoon in South Australia. (There were a number of similar reported sightings in that area at the time.) He then began seeking out the last of the old "tiger" trappers from thirty or forty years before, and obtaining background information from them. In 1990 his family moved to Tasmania and, in 1993, he received an anonymous tip-off about an "old timer" who was allegedly feeding tigers in the bush. Ultimately, this led to his seeing an actual thylacine in 1995, as well as what appeared to be a thylacine lair and, in another area, a smell which could not be attributed to any known animal. He also goes into a great deal of interesting detail about the pitfalls of amateur thylacine searching.
     All this is very encouraging to those of us who want to believe the species is still out there somewhere. However, he fails to provide the most crucial information: what did he see? How close was he? What was the lighting situation? How long did the observation last? What specific features led him to believe it was a Tasmanian tiger? He has no doubt done his homework, and has good reason for his belief, but even a professional zoologist employed to locate the species would not be taken at his word unless he provided the above information.
     (2) Experiences from the Past by the late Ned Terry. This originally appeared as an appendix to the e-book, Magnificent Survivor by "Tigerman", and you can find it on part 4, page 68. Mr Terry had also been a veteran thylacine investigator, dating from the 1970s, and even included a visit to Indonesian New Guinea in his activities. He claimed to have between 30 and 40 tapes of the accounts of people who, for one reason or another, would not tell their stories to the state authorities. He then provides a summary of the animal's behaviour, based on these tapes, and it has the ring of truth to it. Unfortunately, it is not recorded how many of these experiences refer to the period prior to the official extinction date of 1936, and how many later. The tapes are not particularly useful unless the specific information involved is shared.
     (3) So Near and Yet So Far by Nick Mooney, who paints a different picture because, unlike the others, he is a wildlife biologist actually employed by the Tasmanian Government to investigate thylacine reports. After a brief resumé of history, he does what I am sure he would agree is a set of back-of-the-envelope calculations on population dynamics, based on reasonable assumptions concerning the species' ecology. With the same  margin of error typical of such wildlife calculations, it is nevertheless probably accurate as to order of magnitude. His guesstimate is that the total original population was around 2,000, which had shrunk to about 100 when the last one was captured in 1933. (Of course, the last one captured would not have been the very last one in the wild!) He then extrapolates to the position post-1933 with the background of fragmented populations, fragmented habitats, and the like, and the picture is not good. To the question, "Is it still there?" his response is, "It's probably not there, but it just might be."
     He describes in detail the steps he took in following up the famous sighting by ranger Hans Naarding in 1982. (Remember: this was 32 years ago. A small population can vanish in 32 years.) When other credible sightings are made, he follows them up by checking the site and circumstances, even recreating the sighting using similarly sized dogs. He feels that the average witness underestimates the distance by 70% and overestimates the time by a factor of four. It is not very encouraging.
     Part of his attitude is because he is a professional. An amateur can have the luxury of enthusiastic optimism, but Dr Mooney's opinion carries weight. If he says "yes", not only will he have to justify it to his peers (which no true professional fears), but it may force the hand of government. For that reason, he is not prepared to confirm anything unless he has irrefutable proof. For example, the chapter comes with a photo of a good cast of a thylacine footprint allegedly taken in 2010. Unfortunately, he has no way of knowing whether it was obtained as described, or is a hoax. As he put it: "Far better to leave the print in situ until its context can be examined, or if that is not possible, take lots of photos with a scale then cast the print(s) with witnesses."
     I must admit, under similar circumstances I would have said the same thing. Nevertheless, he admits that the person involved is an excellent naturalist and is highly respected. In other words, he is the sort of person whose word would be taken seriously in a court of law. "Taken seriously" is not, of course, the same as "believed". It means, however, that his testimony might be the deciding factor in combination with other evidence.
     He also adds: "I have been exposed to what one might describe as perfect sighting reports; even a few by people I would trust with my life (even my beer!)." Unfortunately, that is not good enough for, if you accept a sighting of a certain quality you must accept them all. It seems to me that that misses the big picture. If a "good" report is arbitrarily defined as having a 50% chance of being accurate, and you have 100 such reports then, although you can't be certain which ones are accurate, the odds are very high that at least one of them is. A lot of sub-optimal evidence, if good enough, can still add up. We take that for granted in even more mundane situations. Remember that Al Capone was jailed for tax evasion because there was insufficient evidence to nail him for any single murder or robbery. But everybody knew he was a crook.

     We now move into the even more contested area of alleged Tasmanian tigers on the mainland, where they were never supposed to have been in historical times. For reasons given in an earlier post, I consider 95% of such reports can be written off as either inconsistent with a thylacine or possessing insufficient information. Nevertheless, we can distinguish three separate types of sightings. The first are the minority which would be taken very seriously if made in Tasmania. The second are those where the witness believes he or she saw a thylacine but another explanation is possible. I have previously explained how bridling in dingo hybrids and adventitious markings due to mange can provide the illusion of thylacine stripes, whereas mange, or simply the breed of dog, can produce a straight, non-bushy tail. However, when we consistently hear of both factors being present together, one wonders whether something more is not behind them.
     For the third, I should introduce you to a bit of Australian/New Zealand vernacular among those of us who remember the "Clayton's" campaign of thirty years ago. It was a non-alcoholic drink billed as "the drink you have when you're not having a drink". I whimsically classified this third category as Thylacinus claytoni, the thylacine you see when you're not seeing a thylacine. The animal looks like a Tasmanian tiger in most respects, except that something is wrong. These sightings give me no end of headaches. I suppose it is theoretically possible that the thylacine may have evolved slightly different physical characteristics on the mainland from those in Tasmania, but that sounds too much like special pleading. It becomes harder to accept when the "wrong" feature is variable - lack of stripes or too few stripes in one specimen, a bushy tail in another, even spots. Also, Aboriginal art in northern Australia, and the Nullarbor specimen in the south, indicate that the mainland thylacine was pretty much the same as in Tasmania. I think that anyone making a serious case for the existence of thylacines on the mainland should carefully separate the three groups, and not lump them together.
     With this in mind, let us continue.

     (4) Mainland Thylacines by Tony Healy and Paul Cropper. This a reprint of a chapter from their 1994 book, Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia. At the start, I should mention three weaknesses which are not really their fault. Firstly, the original publisher allowed them to have endnotes for each chapter, but no internal references. The result is that it is not easy to link any specific datum with a specific reference. Nevertheless, it appears that, in most cases, only a short time elapsed between each alleged sighting and the report. Secondly, the original chapter contained a number of illustrations but, for technical reasons, they have been omitted by the current publisher. This defect occurs in a number of other chapters, including my own. Thirdly, they refer to a thylacine humerus discovered in the Kimberleys among a collection of other bones which were only 80 years old. This information was correct at the time of writing. However, in 1997 a carbon-14 test on the humerus dated it at 4,000 years old.
     Nevertheless, the broad sweep of this comprehensive chapter is astounding, with far more detail than can be summarised here. They list some of the highlights of the Wonthaggi Monster, and they go into detail of the Ozenkadnook Tiger "flap" of the 1950s and 60s, leading up to the famous Rilla Martin photograph of 1964, which is probably the most enigmatic one taken in Australia. They conclude that it is probably a fake. My personal opinion is that it is probably genuine, but one thing is certain: it is not a Tasmanian tiger. They also go into detail on alleged sightings in Western Australia, leading up to the almost equally famous Cameron photos, the dubious nature of which they are quite aware.
     Ultimately, the authors do not come out for or against the existence of thylacines on the mainland, but merely leave it open. The information they provide is vast but, I have to admit, it consists mostly of class 2 sightings. Individually, they are not impressive; collectively they might well be. They also include two very good sightings: one by ranger, Peter Simon in the ACT in 1982, and the one by the Chevalier siblings near Pambula in 1984. Isn't this what you would expect of a real phenomenon: lots of brief, weak sightings and a few very good ones?
     (5) Thylacine Sightings Outside Tasmania. This is my contribution. Instead of going in for quantity, I chose to concentrate on a handful of very good cases from Victoria, Queensland, and Indonesian New Guinea, emphasizing that they represent just the tip of the iceberg. Some you can read in this blog and some in my book, while some you won't read elsewhere. I come to no conclusions.
     (6) Quest for the Thylacine by the late Peter Chapple, one of the founders of the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association Inc (ARFRA). This was originally a paper given at the 2001 Myths and Monsters symposium in Sydney, and can be found here (scroll to p 75). He describes the history and work of ARFRA, which claimed to have received reports of 4,300 sightings on the mainland (as of 2001), of which 1,400 were considered highly credible. What I find interesting was that Mr Chapple had commenced an M.Sc. thesis at Monash University in 1998 but had not yet completed it at the time of his death. This involved running 1,080 good to excellent sightings through a computer program called BIOCLIM. Used for species whose existence no-one doubts, this program considers each sighting against 35 topographical and climatic variables. A major trend he discovered was that, although the number of mainland thylacine sightings had increased in every decade since the 1950s, the actual geographic dispersion had shown a marked decline. Although he rightly considered this trend disturbing, it is consistent with a real biological population rather than a social phenomenon.
     Much as I hate to cast a damp blanket on the proceedings, these results are not much good lying there unpublished. Perhaps the new Journal of Cryptozoology might be interested, if someone could collate them into publishable form.
      (7) Evidence for the Continuing Survival of the Thylacine by Gary Opit. The author is a professional zoologist involved in free-lance work, particularly as an environmental consultant, but with his fingers in quite a few pies. One of these is as a wildlife consultant for ABC North Coast Radio, and it is from this source in particular he is able to access cryptozoological reports, and often to follow them up. I have to admit that, when he started describing mainland thylacine sightings, I was initially quite sceptical and cynical. However, I also have to admit that he has done an excellent job of obtaining much more detail concerning most of these sightings than is generally the case. Many are of questionable value, but a significant number are the sort that would have Dr Mooney and the late Dr Guiler out in force with all their tools of the trade if they had occurred in Tasmania. Equally, a lot of details reports can only be categorized as Clayton's thylacines - and I don't know what to make of them. Perhaps BIOCLIM could be utilised in these cases also.
     (8) The Truth About the Nullarbor Thylacine by Michael Williams. In 1966 a desiccated thylacine carcass was discovered in a cave on the Nullarbor Plain. Initially, it was assumed to be very recent, but a carbon-14 test established its age at approximately 4,650 years. However, Athol Douglas, of the Western Australian Museum challenged that reading on the basis of its state of decomposition. As these doubts have entered the popular domain, Michael Williams decided to look more closely into the issue, and has managed to debunk Douglas' theory. The carcass really is 4½ millennia old.
     Small correction: on p 133 one of the discoverers, Jacky Lowry is quoted as saying: "I knew that dogs had four incisors, Thylacines six, so one of the first things I did was to count them." In fact, dogs have six incisors in both jaws, while Thylacines possess eight in the upper jaw and six in the lower. This can be confirmed, not only from the literature, but from the photographs on p 160.
     (9) Scientists and the Construction of the Thylacine's Extinction by Dr Robert Paddle, who is the author of the very well researched book, The Last Tasmanian Tiger. In this chapter he goes through the history of its extinction, and points out that it was predicted 100 years prior to the death of the official last one. He states that modern sightings cannot be considered evidence of its continuing existence (I would have said: cannot confirm its continuing existence), but that they are "of interest". He then shows how the reports of some post-1936 sightings include details include details of the species' biology which were known, or reasonably deducible by scientists, but not known to the witnesses.
     (10) Thinking Beyond Extinction by Dr Andrew Pask. Prof Pask was a member of the team which successfully inserted part of a Thylaince gene into mice, and confirmed that it functioned, and this chapter covers that general field. It is very interesting, but readers may find it a bit difficult without some background in genetics. Also, it is not really germane to the theme of this book. He does, however, examine the question as to whether it would be possible to clone a thylacine. With our current knowledge, the answer is no.

     I have already mentioned the removal of sketches and diagrams from the text.
     There is inconsistency is referencing. Some authors use alphabetical endnotes and some numerical ones, while I was allowed to get away with footnotes. While this might be simply untidy, there is a deeper problem. Chapter 6 has internal references, but no external ones (endnotes). Admittedly, this was a defect of the original paper, but a bit of editing could have removed it. Two of the internal references in Chapter 7 are not mirrored in the endnotes, while in Chapter 8 eleven of the twenty-four endnotes, one of them a duplicate, correspond to no internal reference.
     Thirdly, there is an excessive number of blank pages, both in the rear and between chapters. Also, although before each chapter stands a page-sized photo, it is often not relevant to the text, and appears to act as a space filler. Here, a little technical information is in order. Books and magazines are made by binding clusters of pages called "signatures". This is easier to see in something loosely bound, like a notebook or diary, and is even more obvious in a newspaper, where it is clear that there are four pages printed on each sheet of paper. If the sheet were folded in two, it would make eight pages, if folded again, sixteen. The typical book has eight or sixteen pages printed on a single sheet, or signature. This is then folded such that the pages all line up in the correct order and, after the signatures are all bound together, the folds are cut. Obviously, a publisher must balance the total number of words, the font size, margins etc so that the full text fits into the appropriate number of signatures. Not infrequently, there is some space left over. This is why most books have a few blank pages at the back. Added to the numbered pages, the grand total will nearly always turn out to be a multiple of eight. Check your own books if you don't believe me.
     In this case, the 184 B5-sized pages equate to 23 eight-page signatures. In my opinion, one fewer signature would have made the book a lot more presentable. Alternatively, another chapter could have been added. I would have liked to have seen a comparison made with the other cryptozoological activity in Tasmania: the hunt for the fox.
     It is believed that foxes have been maliciously or accidentally introduced into Tasmania. One person even saw a fox walk off a boat in broad daylight. If they manage to establish a breeding population, they will devastate the native wildlife just as they have on the mainland. The position is dire. Everything familiar to the search for the thylacine is mirrored in the search for the fox: plausible sightings, sightings proved to be bogus, scientists on the ground seeking evidence, even members of the public scoffing at them. The Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water, and Environment has built up an impressive amount of evidence. On the other hand, an independent scientific review concluded that there had never been any credible evidence of foxes in Tasmania. Although the latter review has a lot going for it, it must be remembered that this is a field where a false negative can have terrible consequences.
     The point to be made is that, when a species is elusive and its population level very low, it becomes extremely difficult to confirm or deny its continued existence. But at least the fox chasers have a secret weapon denied to the thylacine chasers: if there is reason to believe foxes are in the area, they can bring in dogs trained on the mainland to sniff out foxes. If the dogs reaction positively, then baits can be laid. As poisoned foxes tend to go to earth and perish in seclusion, it is theoretically possible to wipe out an incipient colony without anyone ever seeing a member.
     It is interesting to note that Dr Mooney is also involved in the fox eradication program, and on page 47 he describes a typical encounter with a member of the public. A man will tell him it is a waste of money because there are no foxes, but then add that tigers exist because his mate saw one a few months before.
[W]hat intrigues me is that what their mate says they saw completely overwhelms the very considerable evidence of foxes.
Is It Worth Reading?
     Yes. You won't get any firm answers, but you will come away with a lot of information which you won't find elsewhere, and which is not easy to dismiss. There are three groups in particular who will find the book worthwhile:
      (1) Tasmanians. The "tiger" is a burning issue in that state, and efforts should be made to promote the book there. Unfortunately, it won't turn up on bookshop shelves where passers-by can discover it but, being print-on-demand, it is likely to be around for quite a while.
     (2) People with a general interest in cryptozoology - especially Australians.
     (3) Australian naturalists and mammalogists. If you are one of this last group, you had better buy it yourself, because your local technical library won't stock it. The people who order for these libaries don't read blogs such as this.

1 comment:

  1. A dud book made by people that have achieved nothing on this subject.


The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.