Friday, 6 February 2015

More on the Queensland Marsupial Tiger

     The last I heard of Dr Ralph Molnar, he was looking for dinosaur bones in America, but during the 1990s he was the official Queensland Museum palaeontologist. He was also the one staff member with an active interest in cryptozoology. Thus, after he had read my book, he contacted me, and was kind enough to provide me with photocopies of his large collection of newspaper articles on the subject. Looking back through them, I was pleased to note that some of them were follow-ons from the Great North Queensland Tiger Hunt of 1923.
     For those who came in late, the legendary north Queensland marsupial was (is) alleged to be a striped, cat-like predator, presumed to be a marsupial, lurking in the forests of far north Queensland. On 31 March 1923, an expedition in search of the legendary animal was announced. As far as I am aware, nothing eventuated. However, it did manage to encourage a certain amount of comment in the press.
     For the following, you must understand that Springbrook is not in north Queensland but, rather the reverse, is located in the far southeast corner, west of what it now the Gold Coast, nestled among the mountains and the rainforest.
     I am glad somebody is in earnest going to probe the truth of existence of a larger tiger cat in Queensland than has yet gladdened scientific eyes. Not having enjoyed the privilege of being museum bred, and only being a wanderer in the wilds, I have always paid respectful attention to the accounts given me by intelligent men, who relate what they have seen and heard in their long experience of the byways of our land.
     As my contribution, here is an extract from one of my 1913 note-books:- "Near Mt. Nimmel, there is a gorge; just below a precipice in Springbrook, which the blacks would not enter as there was a big 'tiger cat,' large as a big dog, that would kill man or dog. No living black had seen it; but their fathers had told them of it. Can this be a reminiscence of Thylacoleo, or more probably of the Tasmanian Devil? It is described as having great teeth. The blacks used to try to kill it by enticing it out, by taking a dog, and making it howl; but it always got away; anyhow, they were never successful. James Ferguson, timber getter, reported this to the late Mr. E. Cooper, who told me."
     Here is another extract from the same book: - "About the year 1906 a big 'tiger cat' took a lot of fowls from Mrs. Richters, at Nerang. It was as big as a terrier dog, and her dog would not tackle it. It was shot, and was yellow with black spots. What became of the skin Mr.  E. J. Cooper, my informant, does not know." I have just asked him about it, and he said, "If these good people were to go to Springbrook, they would get one." When I was up there two years ago Ken Gillespie (a fine bushman) pointed out to me a log on which he saw one sitting a few days previously. He saw it several times. My wonderful timber-getter friend, Jack Duncan, who pretty well lived with the blacks as a boy, has told me much of the beast, though even he, who has spent all his life in our mountain scrub, never saw one. I'd like you to hear him sing an original song, full of blackfellow words, round a fire on a cold night. He is one of my richest lodes of blackfellow lore and language - all gone now. But I must cry "belay." [The Brisbane Courier, 7 April 1923]
     With all due respect to the author's professorial status, I don't see any evidence of any species unknown to science. His information is all second or third hand, and the reference in the first sentence to "a larger tiger cat" is a reminder that an animal with that popular name was already known. Old-timers weren't always fussy about the existence of stripes when applying the name, "tiger". There exist a number of marsupial predators, all of them now rare and threatened, of the genus, Dasyurus, popularly known as native cats or quolls. They all possess brown or greyish fur beset with white spots, and the largest one, D. maculatus, or spotted-tail quoll was, until a few decades ago, popularly known as the "tiger cat". According to C. Belcher, S. Burnett and M. Jones, who provided the relevant entry in The Mammals of Australia (3rd edn), males range in size from 380 to 759 mm [15 - 30 inches] head and body length, with a tail 370 to 550 mm [14.6 -21.6 in] long. That makes the largest bigger than a fox, and certainly larger than a terrier. Yellow with black spots are, of course, virtually the reverse of the correct pattern - and unknown in any species at all - but the information was second hand. It was surprising a professor didn't pick that up. As for its reputation for ferocity, let's just say that, if you meet one in the hen house, remember: you'll be fighting for your hens, but it will be fighting for its life, so whose motivation is going to be the stronger?
     This brought a response on 22 May 1923 in the same newspaper, with a paragraph entitled, "A Springbrook 'Tiger'." It related how a Mr G. W. Williams had brought to the office the skin of a "tiger cat" which he had shot on May 14 at Springbrook. It measured 3 ft. 5 in. [104 cm] from nose to tail tip, and 17½ inches [44½ cm] at its narrowest circumference. Although they didn't describe the skin, it is well within the range of D. maculatus. It had been shot while feeding on the carcass of a cow, but no claim was made that it had been the one which had done the killing.
     From there, however, we move to the far north, the legendary home of the legendary marsupial tiger. On 28 April 1923, the Daily Mail carried the following story:
This Northern Wonder
     Under the above heading, which refers to the fierce pouched tiger, said to exist in the Palmerville Range, Mr. M. O'Leary, of Didillibah, writing on April 17, says: "During the year 1881, Bill M'Cord killed a monster tiger cat at Scrubby Creek, near Atherton. I forget the exact size of the brute from the neck to the end of the tail, but a splendid stock whip was made from its hide. Although punctured in several places by revolver bullets, the animal put up a tough fight, and almost crippled two dogs. The incident created some wonder at the time, but it proved to be just a large tiger cat."
     Mr. O'Leary continues: "During 1902, while sluicing in a gully on the Tully tableland, some unearthly sounds came from a large hollow tree close by. My abo (blackboy) bolted with fright as they usually do, but with a little patience I dislodged a cat which measured from nose to tip of tail 4 feet 7 inches. Like the scrubby creek brute, it could only be classed as a large tiger cat. I know those highlands well, right from the Herbert to the Daintree, but never struck one of those supposed Northern wonders. The native name for the tiger cat is 'Jarry.' I don't think there can be any doubt as to this tiger cat, or Dasyure being the strongest animal of its size in the bush. It is very fierce, has a skull as hard as bell metal, with very punishing jaw.
     He then goes on to refer to a huge feral cat killed by a dog.
     I really wish he had described the animal's coat pattern. He appears to be saying that he has never seen the legendary North Queensland tiger, but that the specimen referred to were "dasyures" ie Dasyurus maculatus. However, if 4 ft 7 in [140 cm] were the correct length, then it exceeded the known maximum size. Not only that, but the northern representative of the species is a separate subspecies, D. maculatus gracilis, separated from the nominate subspecies by hundreds of kilometres. It is also smaller on the average. The same authority cites a maximum head-body length of 510 mm [20 in] with a tail length of 440 mm [17.3 in].
     What about a feral cat? I've written elsewhere that they can grow as big as foxes. Returning to The Mammals of Australia, E. Denny cites the male head-body length as ranging from 448 to 740 mm [17.6 to 29 in], and the tail from 235 to 345 mm [9¼ to 13.6 in]. Again, O'Leary's specimen was far too big. I have written elsewhere that I believe feral cats have recently evolved a much larger size, and are responsible for at least some of the "black panther" sightings. However, 1902 sounds too early for that to have developed. Also, Mr. O'Leary appears to distinguish his beast from the feral cat killed by a dog. Or perhaps he simply misremembered its size.
     The next article, however, is more enigmatic. It comes from the Daily Mail or 12 December 1932, and was picked up by a lot of other newspapers.
     TULLY, Sunday, - Mr. A. W. Blackman, of Upper Murray, and a party who made a tour of the Kirrima lands, about 30 miles from Tully, claim to have shot what is generally known as a marsupial tiger (called by the aborigines "yaddi"). The animal, which proved ferocious when captured, was half as big again as a domestic cat, and was striped like a tiger. It was captured on the fringe of extensive scrub on the Cardwell Range, and it is thought that with a careful hunt another of the species could be captured.
     The party also captured a tree-climbing kangaroo and discovered several new kinds of opossums - brown, brown with white arm bands, and another emerald-tinted (known as tuela). These are thought to be rare specimens.
     I haven't been able to find any follow up on Trove. How I wish they had provided a more detailed description - or, better still, kept the carcass or skull. I don't think much of the phrase, "half as big again as a domestic cat", considering the great variation in size of feral cats. But most people would be able to recognize a cat if it were captured and shot, and he does seem to consider it a different species. Also, it was striped, not spotted. So was it an unknown species which just slipped out of the fingers of science? Your guess is as good as mine.

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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.