Monday, 22 September 2014

A Thylacine in North Queensland?

    Black panthers, cougars, even big, hairy apes roaming the Australian bush: that I can handle. But I confess that what I find most perplexing are the reports of thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers on the mainland. The extinction of the thylacine has left an open wound in the Australian psyche. The three species of bandicoots and six species of wallabies which have gone the way of the dodo in historical times have hardly ruffled the public consciousness - let alone all those whose ranges have contracted to tiny enclaves, often on off-shore islands. Indeed, as far as the central hare wallaby is concerned, it is unlikely anyone but a real specialist has taken notice. It is known to science by only a single skull presented in 1932 by the only white man ever to see the living animal.
     But when the last official Tasmanian tiger passed on in 1936, the whole nation was aware of the tragedy. The thylacine can be found depicted everywhere in Tasmania: on its coat of arms, on Government department logos, on its beer. Countless expeditions have set out in search of it. Many people still believe it clings to existence. Almost everybody hopes it does. But what is really confusing are the reports which keep cropping up from odd corners of the mainland, where it is supposed to have been extinct for several thousand years. There exists a sort of "thylacine fever" in some areas, and every brindled dingo, mangy fox, or otherwise aberrant carnivore is uncritically labelled a thylacine. By now I refuse to take such claims seriously unless they are very detailed and well documented. The trouble is, some of them are.
     The following case occurred in the Longland Gap district of the Atherton Tableland, not far from Herberton. This would be at about 17° 13' S, 145° 22' E, give or take a few miles. A half century beforehand this area had been the centre of rumours of a mysterious marsupial tiger. Nevertheless, in this case we are dealing with something definitely dog-like rather than cat-like. The event took place in 1972/73, when I was studying for my M.Sc. The reason I obtained the full story is that the investigating zoologist, John Winter was a former colleague. He had been one degree ahead of me at university, so to speak, and now had moved north for his first real job. I therefore contacted him as soon as I saw his name on the newspaper article #3 below. I confess, however, that now that I am about to quote his entire report, I feel some reservations about naming him. However, the report bears all the hallmarks of an official report to his employer, accessible under F.O.I. Also, he originally asked me to pass it on to two of our colleagues. In any case, he is a better and more successful zoologist than me.
     We shall start with the newspaper reports, which he has numbered 1 to 3.

Article 1.  The Cairns Post, Wednesday 17 January 1973
     A strange animal, tawny brown in color with dark, vertical stripes on its back, has been sighted in bushland near the Herberton and Ravenshoe road junction. The animal was seen by Mr Len Watson, 35, a miner of Brownville via Mt Garner, and Mr Ron Tucker, 52, and his son, Harry, 17, of Brisbane. They sighted the animal around 10.15 pm on Saturday in scrub near the junction.
     "The animal walked across in front of the car and stopped on the verge of a gully, before disappearing from sight," Mr Watson said.
     Mr Watson described the beast as "light tawny brown in color with dark vertical stripes across its body." The stripes were approximately 1½ in [4 cm] wide. The animal stood 18 in [46 cm] from the ground on long, slim legs.
     "Its body was 2 ft [61 cm] long, and appeared very straight with the underside being parallel to the top side," Mr Watson said. "The animal had a small triangular head with a pointed mouth and small round ears. It had a very short neck. The animal walked with its tail straight out behind it," he said. "The 18 in tail was the same thickness throughout and finished in a rounded tip. The legs were straight and when the beast walked, it walked like a cat."
     "A zoo in Melbourne has expressed interest in the sighting and would be very interested to hear of any other sightings of the strange animal," Mr Watson said.
     Over the past months another strange beast, called "The Cape Tribulation Tiger", has been sighted several times on the Cape Tribulation side of the Daintree River. The animal was said to be taller and longer than an Alsatian dog. It's tail was about one-and-a-half times as long as the average dog's tail. According to witnesses, the animal was dirty grey in color, with hair visible only on its back. It had a tiny head with a short neck and nose; small, rounded ears; and two fangs like pig tusks protruding from the upper jaw. The Cape Tribulation Tiger is said to utter a blood-curdling, yodelling cry.

Article 2: The Cairns Post, Thursday 18 January 1973
     An Aloomba woman reported yesterday she had also seen the strange striped animal sighted near Herberton and Ravenshoe road junction on Saturday night. Mrs Rhonda Gadaloff, of Aloomba, said that on December 23 while travelling from Ravenshoe to Aloomba she saw an animal identical to the one described in "The Cairns Post" yesterday. She said: "The animal walked to the side of the road and watched me drive slowly past. When I sighted it I was about a mile on the Ravenshoe side of the junction"
     The animal has been described as light tawny brown in color with dark vertical stripes about 1½ ins. wide across its body. It stands 18 in. high on long slim straight legs. Its body also appears very straight.
     The animal is reported to have a small triangular head with a pointed mouth, small round ears, and a short neck. The 18 in tail is the same thickness throughout and finishes in a rounded tip.
     Mrs Gadaloff said she believed the animal may be what was referred to in her youth as a "tiger cat."
     "I never saw one as they were very rare," Mrs Gadaloff [said], "but I was once told that they sucked fowls dry if they had the opportunity."
     Mrs Gadaloff said she grew up in North Barron which is about three miles from the Crater.

Article 3: The Sunday Mail (Brisbane) 28 January 1973 
A "tiger" hunt in Queensland bush
     A North Queensland zoologist will head into the bush this week-end, trying to find what some local residents claim is a Tasmanian Tiger. He will follow up four reported sightings of the animal in the Herberton and Ravenshoe areas. The zoologist, Mr. John Wintour [sic], of Atherton, made two journeys into the bush last week, without locating the animal. Mr. Wintour said yesterday the descriptions he had been given where not dissimilar to that of a Tasmanian Tiger.
     "The four sightings, one of which was in daylight, produced consistent descriptions of the animals," Mr. Wintour said. "None of these was far fetched or fantastic," he said.
     (The last known Tasmanian Tiger died in captivity about 1932.)
     Mr. Wintour said it was known the animal, a marsupial wolf, once lived in southern regions of the Australian mainland. But this did not mean one could not be located in northern Queensland.
     Sightings near Herberton describe the mystery animal as light tawny brown in color with dark stripes, 1½ inches wide across its back. Body length was about 2 ft. and the animal stood approximately 18 in. high. The animal had a small, triangular mouth and small, round ears. The neck was short. Its tail was about 18 in. long, of similar thickness throughout and was carried straight out behind the animal.
     Mr. Wintour said he did not wish to give an exact location of the "tiger" spottings. "It must also be remembered that two types of native cat are found in the region. At the same time, the short squat neck, small head and stripes are strong characteristics of the marsupial wolf," Mr. Wintour said.
     He said descriptions lacked fanciful characteristics often associated with alleged sightings of strange animals.
     In recent months, there have been reported sightings of another strange animal in north Queensland which has been named the Cape Tribulation Tiger. Descriptions of this animal place it as being much bigger than a German Shepherd dog. It is claimed to have hair only on its back and two long fangs which protrude from the upper jaw. Completing the rather fantastic description is the claim that it utters a long, blood curdling yodel.

     So let us now examine Mr. (later Dr.) Winter's (not Wintour's) report.

     Since 1871 there have been scattered reports of a relatively large striped carnivore in North Queensland variously described as cat-like or dog-like. These reports have been summarized by Troughton (1962) and Burton (1956). [This is the standard method of citation in scientific papers. The references are at the end.] Although specimens have reportedly been shot or otherwise collected, none of this material has been examined by a scientist nor preserved to the present day, and as Troughton says this failure "... casts much doubt over the reports of such an animal in Queensland".
Recent Sightings
     A series of reports of a strange striped animal in the Longland Gap area, Atherton Tableland, came to my notice recently.
    The first of these reports was an article in the Cairns Post (Article 1), 17-1-73, with a relatively full description of the beast, later the same day Betty Jackson of the A.B.C. [Australian Broadcasting Commission] Cairns, rang the Forestry Department, Atherton, to enquire whether any of the foresters had seen the beast. The call was passed onto me and I had a long conversation with Ms. Jackson, the gist of which was that I said that the description of the animal fitted that of the Tasmanian wolf (Thylacine) remarkably well, particularly the small head with small rounded ears, short neck, the long tail of even thickness and the dark vertical stripes.
     Next day I was contacted by Janet Crump, of Herberton, who reported that she and her mother had seen the above animal right at the Herberton turn-off of the Ravenshoe-Atherton road at about 8.00 p.m. sometime in December, 1972. Ms. Crump emphasised the long thin tail and the stripes. She also said that the animal looked "very lean and hungry, but not mangy". A sketch drawn by here (Fig.1) indicated that the stripes did not encircle the body and that they came well forward, also that the tail was held diagonally downwards and straight rather than bowed. Apparently the animal did not seem particularly nervous of the car as it stood watching it for an appreciable time before disappearing. It was crossing from the rainforest towards the more open forest.
Figure 1.
      The poor quality of this picture  is due to the fact that it comes from a very faint copy made by a wet-paper copier such as were common 40 years ago. It is annotated with Mr Winter's handwritten note initialed 18-1-73:
Sketch made by Janet Crump 18-1-73 from memory of a sighting made in December 1972. She emphasised long thin tail and stripes. Also that the animal looked very lean & hungry. She suggested that it may have been coming to the water tap by the road.
     Stripes came well forward onto shoulders
     But to continue:
     News of the sightings and my comment that the description "fitted that of the Thylacine well" elicited a letter to the A.B.C. from Mr. Ed Morton, Honorary Protector of Flora and Fauna, that the beast must not be shot as the sightings had occurred in a Fauna Sanctuary. He also mentioned that he and his boss - Bill Weare of Upper Barron - had seen it.
    I interviewed both Mr. Morton and Mr. Weare on 24th January, 1973. Mr. Weare was away when I was speaking to Mr. Morton whose description was as follows.
     "Dingo-like except for the short neck. Head like that of a dog and ears very erect. Black vertical stripes from forequarters to hindquarters. Tail dog-like, not bushy. In very good condition. Never seen anything like it before. Not mangy. It stayed to watch for a while then took off into the bush."
     He was unable to sketch the animal, but on one done by me he agreed that the tail was straight and diagonally down. The stripes he thought were not absolutely vertical, but at a slight diagonal sloping backwards from top to bottom.
     Bill Weare returned just as I was finishing talking to Mr. Morton and his description - he had not heard Morton's - was as follows.
     "Thick neck, tail straight and held diagonally down possibly with a bit of an upwards curve. Body colour dark brown, several vertical stripes. Never seen one before. An awkward looking thing. About 18" at the shoulder and body about 2 ft. long."
     When shown the picture of a Thylacine in Ride (1970) - after obtaining their descriptions - Mr. Weare though that the stripes came round towards the belly more on the animal he had seen. Mr. Morton thought that the picture was a very close likeness, more so than the one in Troughton (1962). Mr. Weare was little more cautious.
     They saw the animal between 9.00 and 10.00 a.m. on a fine sunny morning about 200 yds. on the Atherton side of the Herberton turn-off as they were travelling towards Ravenshoe at about 35 m.p.h. [56 kph]. Ed Morton was driving and remarked "Look, there's a dingo". It moved off the road in no greathurry and passed just inside the bush, but the momentum of their truck loaded with bees took them past before they thought of stopping.
     Mr. Weare checked his diary and thought the date had been 18th December 1972, but he was a little uncertain.
     The final report was a second article (Article 2) in the Cairns Post, 18-1-73, stating that a Mrs. Gadaloff had also seen the animal. She had seen it on 23rd December, 1972 about 1 mile on the Ravenshoe side of the turn-off and that the animal had "..... walked to the side of the road and watched me drive past".
     I rang Mrs. Gadaloff to enquire about the time of the sighting. It was about 11.00 p.m. on a clear night. The animal was standing beside the road in full view and did not move when she drove past. Afterwards she wondered whether someone had ".. played a trick and put a stuffed one beside the road." She also said that 18" was a bit taller than her estimate, which was 12", but that it was difficult to judge the height.
     When interviewing people I was careful not to ask leading questions and at times deliberately asked misleading questions such as "Did the stripes run along the body parallel to the backbone?" I showed the pictures of the Thylacine to these people -Ms. Crump, Mr. Weare and Mr. Norton - after I had obtained their descriptions.
Analysis of sightings
     Table 1 summarizes the sightings and the descriptions given. The descriptions showed a remarkable degree of consistency which indicated that the same animal was being sighted - short neck, 12-18" high, about 2 ft. long, "poor condition", tawny brown with dark vertical stripes, long thin tail held horizontally or with slight downward bow, not excessively shy of motor vehicles. What can not be entirely excluded is that this consistency may have arisen from the later reports given after the first newspaper article with the full description had appeared.
     Sightings were spread over a six week period, December 1972 to 13th January 1973, and were all in the same area with no more than 1 mile [1.6 km] separating the furthest sightings.
     Although most sightings were made at night one was made on a bright sunny  morning, suggesting the stripes were genuine and not some lighting trick.
     The sightings occurred towards the end of one of the driest periods known on the Tableland for many years, which may have accounted for the animal's apparently poor condition.

Table 1. Summary of the sightings of the striped animal at Longland Gap, Atherton Tableland.
                1 = Watson et al; 2 - Crump; 3 = Morton; 4 = Weare; 5 = Gadaloff.
Head      1) Small and triangular, pointed mouth, small round ears      2) -
                 3) Dog-like, ears very erect.     4) -     5) -
Neck      1) very short    2) -   3) short neck    4) thick neck   5) -
Body Shape  1) 2ft. long, very straight, underside parallel to top, legs straight, 18" at shoulder.
               2) Very lean and hungry look, not mangy.
               3) Very poor condition but not mangy.
               4) 18" at shoulder and about 2 ft long.
               5) About 12" high.
Tail       1) 18" long, same thickness throughout and finished in a rounded tip. Held straight out behind.
               2) Long thin tail held diagonally down.
               3) Dog-like, not bushy.
               4) Straight and held diagonally down.
               5) -
Colour  1) Light tawny brown with dark vertical stripes on body, stripes 1½" wide.
               2) Stripes, did not encircle body, from forequarters to hindquarters.
               3) Black vertical stripes from forequarters to hindquarters, possibly at slight angle.
               4) Dark brown body colour, several vertical stripes coming down towards belly.
               5) Stripes 3-4" [7½ - 10 cm] wide.
Behaviour  1) Walked like a cat. Walked in front of car and stopped on verge of gully before disappearing.
               2) Did not seem nervous of car, stood watching vehicle before disappearing.
               3) 4) Moved off road in no great hurry, paused just inside bush.
               5) a) Walked to side of road and watched car go by
                    b) stood still as car went by.
Date     1) 13-1-73
              2) December, 1972
              3) 4) 18-12-72
              5) 23-12-72
Time    1) 10.15 p.m.
             2) Approx. 8.00 p.m.
             3) 4) 9.00 - 10.00 a.m. - fine, sunny day
             5) Approx. 11.00 p.m. - fine night
Place  1) In scrub near junction.
            2) Right at junction.
            3) 4) 200 yds. Atherton side of junction.
            5) 1 mile Ravenshoe side of junction.
Action Taken
     I was sufficiently convinced that a strange animal was living in the Longlands Gap area, and that it warranted some time spent investigating the area even if only to establish that the animal was not the North Queensland "tiger". My reasons for this conviction were:-
     1) Relative consistency of the descriptions, particularly of the stripes.
     2) Sightings had occurred within a short period of time - 6 weeks.
     3) Sightings were all in the same area, and this area was more or less on my door step.
     4) The has been a history of sightings of a striped animal in North Queensland.
     I therefore decided to spend some time - five days and four nights, between 29th January and 3 February, - camped in the Longland Gap area in an effort to either see or trap the animal. A base camp was set up 1 mile on the Atherton side of the Herberton turn-off and 10 wallaby traps - wire mesh cage traps, approximately 2'6" x 16 " x 16" [75 x 40 x 40 cm], set for five nights. The traps were kindly loaned by Mr. G. Heinsohn, Biology Department, James Cook University, Townsville. Freshly killed chickens were used for bait in most traps and a fresh road kill of a pademelon in some traps for 3 nights. A scent trail, 1 to 2 miles [1/½-3 km] long, was laid between traps on four of the nights. The trail was laid by dragging a portion of the bait, tied by string to the end of a stick, about 2ft. [60 cm] long to one side so that the scent trail was not superimposed on my own. After the initial setting traps were handled as little as possible, again to minimise my own scent.
    The mornings were spent checking the traps and tramping the bush tracks looking for signs of a dog-like animal. Unfortunately, the weather had broken the week before so afternoon and evening observations were hampered by rain. However, scent trails were laid in the late afternoon and the main road was patrolled in the vehicle 2 to 3 times each night.
     Trapping was a failure. One white tailed rat (Uromys caudimaculatus) was the only animal caught. Bait had been disturbed in 2 or 3 of the other traps, presumably by small rats as the traps had not been sprung. There was no sign of any larger animals investigating the traps. Failure may have been partly attributed to the traps being two low, approximately 16 ins.
     Three dingoes were seen in the area. The first was seen at night when patrolling the road. A pale shape was noticed disappearing over a steep bank. On stopping at the place I shone the torch full in the dingo's face and it looked back up the bank, no more than 3 m. away. Only the head was seen but the large triangular ears left no doubt that it was a dingo. General colour of the face was a mottled grey in the torch light. The second dingo was met as it followed a recently laid scent trail, and it came within 30 m. of me before it discovered my presence and veered off into the bush. Its general colour was dark possibly black with no indication of stripes, but it was raining heavily and the light was poor. However, both its general appearance and by the way it walked - with a very graceful springy action - indicated that it was a dingo. The third dingo was also seen beside a newly laid scent trail. It was sitting on a slight bank watching me from a distance of about 75 m. The most noticeable feature was the large pointed ears as it sat bolt up right facing me. When it moved off across the track its general shape and walking action identified it as a dingo. Again it was raining and it was rather difficult to determine the colour of the animal through my rain blurred binoculars, apart from the fact that it was dark and there was no evidence of stripes. Though similar in colouring to the second dingo it did not appear to be such a dark animal.
BURTON, M (1956). Living Fossils. London, Readers Union Thames and London, pp 263 - 269
RIDE, W.D.L. (1970). A Guide to the native mammals of Australia. Melbourne; Oxford University Press,
p. 131
TROUGHTON, E. (1962). Furred animals of Australia. Sydney; Angus and Robertson, pp 48-50

     What  more can be said? Not even the dingoes known to be present went into the traps, and although the animal in question was not sighted, nothing which could have been mistaken for a thylacine was. It was almost certainly a transient.
     No combination of brindling, mange, or other adventitious markings on a dog, fox, or dingo can possibly match the stripes described by all the witnesses. I do note, however, that one of the definitive features of the thylacine, the manner in which the hindquarters taper into the tail, like that of a kangaroo, was never described. Just the same, if such an animal had been reported in Tasmania, zoologists would be over the area with a fine tooth comb. One wonders why it has never been seen again in the last 40 years.
     The report continued:

     On returning from the Longland Gap area I received  letter from Mr. J. A. Arnold dated 30th January, 1973. He claims to have killed an animal at Waughs Pocket, near Innisfail in his hen house in 1923/4. He enclosed a newspaper cutting (Article 3) marking the paragraphs with an X which corresponded to the description of the animal killed. [Note: because of the narrowness of the columns, the newspaper paragraphs each contained only a single sentence. I have combined them for simplicity. The Xs were placed against what is now the fourth paragraph in Article 3 above: "Sightings near Herberton ....straight out behind the animal."] He also gives the following description ".. coarse sparse hair similar to a pig's, - dog-like feet, slight upward curve at the end of the straight tail,  - A mouth of strong dog-like teeth. It was a male, purely dog type animal with no hope of climbing a tree - The black stripes curved down along the tail ie. across the tail as on the body - for want of a better name we called it a cat, but it definitely was not a cat -."
     It is of interest that the animal figured by Burton (1956), also shows the stripes continuing down the tail, which suggests an usually marked tiger cat (Daysurus maculatus). Mr. Arnold, however, was emphatic that the animal he shot was dog-like not cat-like, and that it would not be able to climb trees.

     So what exactly did Mr Arnold's letter say?

Re 'Tiger"
      As a youug man (born 1900) a brother and I, while opening up a new cane farm at Waugh's Pocket near Innisfail in 1923/4 lived in a small house surrounded by scrub (Rainforest). Late one night we heard our fowls disturbed and proceeded to investigate. Mr brother grabbed the kerosene table lamp and I grabbed a new axe handle. I was in the fowl house with the animal when the lamp blew out. The door was of course closed. When it was relit the snarling animal was low down in one corner and I was high up in the other. However, we killed it and next morning seeing it as a novelty we studied it closely. Being extremely busy and broke we threw it away in the scrub and have thought little of it since, but as I was the one locked in with it and thus dragged it outside, the tension and excitement of those few minutes left me with very clear recollections of the animal and the incident. I enclose the cutting which prompted this letter and [illegible]. The paragraphs marked with a X are about identical with the animal we killed. My added description would be - coarse sparse hair similar to a pig's; - slight upward curve at end of the straight tail, - dog type feet - A mouth of strong dog like teeth - It was a male, purely dog type animal with no hope of climbing a tree - The black stripes carried down along the tail i.e. across the tail as in the body. For want of a better name we called it a native cat, but it was definitely not a cat. It being a male and at that time not having heard of a marsupial tiger I do not recall any indication of a marsupial nature.
     As bona fides I quote that the abovementioned brother L. O. ARNOLD still lives at Waugh's Pocket and mother is a retired shire clerk residing at Mareeba (Upper Byrne St)(Atherton Road).
     As the fowls, already mentioned, had disappeared slowly one by one, I would use fowls to try and trap a "Tiger".
     The animal we killed appeared to be extremely timid, is extremely scarce - probably nocturnal and the slightest strange smell or noise would send it to cover.

     So there you have it. Years later I did think to contact his brother, but he was unable to provide any details except to confirm the account. Innisfail is on the coast, not that far from the Atherton Tableland. The description certainly sounds like a thylacine, but since the memory was 50 years old, one must have reservations. It is interesting that he identified the animal as a male, but provided no other details. The male genitals of a thylacine are (? were) quite different from those of a dog's. The scrotum is enclosed in a small pouch, and the penis, unless erect, is internal. And, like all other marsupials, the penis is behind the scrotum.
     It is almost certain that, in 1923/4 the brothers would have possessed neither a telephone nor a camera. But these items are de rigueur these days, and are usually part of the same device, so if such a thing happens again, the participants should know what to do.
     A book will be published shortly giving the pros and cons of the continued existence of the thylacine, so I shall keep you informed.

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