Burning bright

The thylacine’s fiery stripes flicker. A paw, once powerful, hangs listless. Luxurious fur coats the flanks, and grit and grass seeds hang trapped between its hairs, tiny signals of the ground this Tasmanian tiger once hunted, its distant territory, its unknown provenance. 

This particular tiger no longer “prowls the forests of the night”, as William Blake put it, but is a pelt, which was hunted, skinned and shipped across the Tasman to a collector, and laid in suspension in a flat, dark collector’s drawer for half a century. 

Thylacine specimens and pelts are remarkably rare. But through an unusual chain of events, and the intervention of conservator David Thurrowgood, this singular pelt returned to its island of origin, and began yielding its secrets to science, beguiling all those who saw it. 

The pelt in question was bought by New Zealander Archibald Robertson in 1923, and little is known of its origins prior to that. An avid natural history collector, Robertson stored it in a drawer, flat and unharmed, protected from light and almost airtight, for decades. After his death in 1970, his family gradually dispersed some of his collection. The unidentified pelt, along with a number of mounted birds, eventually went to a family friend’s canoe hire shop. The thylacine pelt was hung on the wall in a shadowy corner, an electrical cable slung across it. 

A seed was found deeply entangled in the fur of the pelt. Scientists at the Tasmanian Herbarium identified it as being an endemic kangaroo grass species that grows in Tasmania.

When a blurry image appeared on social media recently, the science world immediately took note, and as word spread through a chain of thylacine specialists and on-the-ground experts, it finally fell to Thurrowgood to evaluate the pelt and secure it for science and conservation, before it fell into the wrong hands. 

Travelling to New Zealand for a weekend, he stayed with Robertson’s daughter, Janet Withers, and her family, and learned as much as he could of the pelt’s provenance. Upon viewing it, he was quickly convinced it was genuine. It was unusually complete, with paws and claws intact and the head too, eyes no longer fiery but long since closed; the fur deeper and more variegated in texture and colour than the faded museum specimens we are mostly familiar with. 

It was, he says, “history tucked away”. 

The value of the pelt to science was beyond doubt. It was clear it had never been subjected to the damaging museum processes of past ages. In the early days of museum collection, after being aggressively washed, pelts were treated with arsenic or mercury as a means of preventing attack by insects. That destroyed the integrity of any DNA remaining in the soft tissue. This pelt, by contrast, had been given only a light vegetable tanning, presumably when it was originally skinned. At about 100 years of age, it was, in the world of museums, nearly brand new. 

. . .

David Thurrowgood, looking into the science which exists around the thylacine in Tasmania, is surprised by what was yet to be achieved. “There is only a very small number of examples in the state, and they have not been fully described at a scientific level,” he says. 

These days, where funding allows, scientific enquiry forms a central part of conservation and museum work. It often includes DNA extraction and the sequencing of a genome, the chain of DNA which is a creature’s signature. Just as there are seed banks, preserving material for a distant time when lost species may be regenerated, this branch of science captures the genome of extinct creatures. 

With species lost at almost the same rate we discover new ones, many believe the preservation of genetic material is essential, for a time in the future when we may have the capacity to recreate them, for the good of our ecology. Thurrowgood  admits that it leads to a “strange idea of species in a test tube waiting for some utopian time when they can come back into existence”. 

It was his educated guess that this pelt, still in magnificent condition, would retain long fragments of its DNA. When “plugged into a super-computer and re-assembled”, they would give a map of a thylacine at genetic level. With only a handful of thylacines worldwide able potentially to yield DNA, this pelt stood to redress the balance, and the results properly could be documented as a matter of international significance and scientific record – from Tasmania. 

. . .

Archibald Robertson’s surviving family became adamant that the pelt be returned to Australia, a fitting legacy of his work. As you might expect, the permissions from government and cultural heritage authorities to transport such an item are exacting in nature. Having once travelled with a $300 million Renoir, and having another time arranged transport for Rodin’s The Thinker, Thurrowgood knew how to put the documentation in place. When more than a dozen customs officials surrounded the thylacine on its return to Australian soil, they were there out of curiosity rather than any official concern.  

In his workshop in a quiet corner of suburban Launceston, Thurrowgood set up a dust-free, light-controlled space and prepared an interim mount for the thylacine pelt. The way such an object is supported is critical – it must not be allowed to crease or flex even under its own weight, for fear of the skin breaking over time. 

Once the pelt was secure, work began, first with the extraction of one square  millimetre sample of skin, hair attached. From this, the DNA was extracted, dissolved and compared to verified thylacine DNA already on record, confirming its veracity. The “key sample” is one taken from Museum Victoria, an ethanol-preserved sample. In the past, comparison with this has led to unexpected results, with specimens in prominent museums turning out not to be thylacines after all. The striking of such collected items off the register only increases the value of this one and the need to preserve it.

Thylacine hair has a complex layered structure with fine hears close to the body, probably to trap heat.

Using high-tech scanning capacitance microscopy, every aspect of the pelt was examined and digitally photographed with nanometer-level accuracy. The resulting high-resolution images showed for the first time what an intact thylacine hair looks like. It was hollow, giving it insulation qualities and indicating the thylacine was well-adapted to the Tasmanian climate. 

In its coat there was grit, bacteria and, most excitingly, a native grass seed. Such physical evidence – mineral particles, seeds and the bacterial microbiome – are highly significant. “We’re hopeful this will tell us the exact region this creature came from,” Thurrowgood explained.

As experts in the field of thylacines visited to collect their own data, it became clear what an outstanding specimen it was, both for science and as an example of what we have lost. Such is its power and presence, the pelt causes an emotional response in the rational professionals who have become its custodians. 

“Very occasionally you get that sort of reaction to an object,” said Thurrowgood, when a once-living creature’s beauty and completeness is such that the shock of its loss to the world is newly felt. 

What is particularly striking is the colour, and the beautiful graduation of the stripes. “The animal would have been stunning, and what’s really exciting is to have this example of the way thylacines really looked.” With its greys and browns and soft fur in layers and textures, this pelt is quite different to what is seen in most museum specimens, which are for the most faded through exposure to light and air. 

. . . 

Thurrowgood’s last service for the thylacine pelt was to assist in finding it a permanent home at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, where it joins an internationally significant thylacine collection. Although there is a certain sadness in seeing it leave Tasmanian shores, ensuring that thylacine and other rare specimens are well distributed is a safety measure, lessening the prospect of losing an entire collection if a museum is lost to natural disaster, as happened when fire swept through Brazil’s National Museum in 2019. 

In its bringing together of natural history and scientific endeavor, the thylacine is a confluence, a symbol of what we can achieve and what we have lost. From deep within its tissue, we learn not just about our past, but create reserves for our future. And in some “distant deeps or skies”, the fire of those eyes might burn once more. It is a “fearful symmetry” that William Blake could surely never have imagined. 

David Thurrowgood is managing director of Applied Conservation Science Pty Ltd, Launceston. He previously worked for several Australian museums as a conservator, including Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery from 2014 to 2019. 

Fiona Stocker is a Tamar Valley-based writer, editor and keeper of pigs. She has published the books A Place in the Stockyard (2016) and Apple Island Wife (2018). More of her writing can be seen at fionastocker.com. 

The author would like to thank David Thurrowgood for providing previously unpublished photographs for this article. 

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