Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Sighting a survivor

I think if I had to choose one extinct species to bring back, it would be the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus).  Second place would be a harder choice; I've always wished we could resurrect some of the dozens of extinct endemic Hawaiian birds, including the three species of 'o'o and the various Hawaiian honeycreepers -- all of which were wiped out in the past 150 years from a combination of habitat destruction, hunting for decorative feathers, and the introduction of mosquitoes and avian malaria.

But there's something about the thylacine that has always fascinated me.  Also called the "Tasmanian wolf" -- a complete misnomer, as its range was not restricted to Tasmania, and it's not a wolf but a marsupial -- the last wild thylacine was shot by a farmer in 1931, and the last captive individual of the species died in a zoo in Hobart in 1936.  They certainly look canine, but it's a case of convergent evolution.  Adults were on the size of a large German shepherd, something on the order of a meter and a half tip-to-tail and sixty centimeters at the shoulder, with a distinctive pattern of stripes on the back (giving them their other misnomer of "Tasmanian tiger").  Their jaws were odd -- long and narrow and capable of almost a ninety-degree gape, giving it a powerful "scissor bite" that allowed them to take down prey far larger than themselves.

This, in fact, was largely their undoing.  They often went after domestic animals, especially sheep, earning them the enmity of farmers and other residents.  They were hunted as nuisances, and in the early twentieth century the Tasmanian government offered a £1 a head bounty on thylacines, something that was taken advantage of over two thousand times.  The scheme worked.  Within two decades the thylacine was functionally extinct, and a few years after that, extinct in reality.

Captive thylacines, ca. 1903 [Image is in the Public Domain]

Since its official extinction in the 1930s, however, there have been regular sightings of thylacines.  At least alleged sightings, because none of them have resulted in anything a scientist would accept as hard evidence -- a photograph, a clump of hair, a bone, even a footprint.  But the claims that the thylacine still exists refuse to die down as they have with other animals.  (No one, for example, claims to have seen a dodo recently on Mauritius Island.)

The problem, besides the lack of evidence, is that there are a lot of ways to misidentify this animal, similar to how an untrained observer might mistake the probably-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker for the relatively common Pileated Woodpecker.  A quick glance could well make someone identify an Australian wild dog (or dingo) for a thylacine -- or even a large feral domestic dog.  Plus, most of the sightings have been in poor light or from a distance.  (To be fair, even if some of these have been actual sightings, that wouldn't be unusual; thylacines were notoriously shy of contact with humans.)

The reason this comes up is because just a few days ago, there was an alleged thylacine sighting, not in Tasmania but in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia.  Once again, there was no photograph or other hard evidence, but this sighting does have some features that make me hopeful it could be the real deal.

According to the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, a gentleman who lives in the Adelaide Hills -- a relatively wild forested area, where you can easily picture an animal living and going unnoticed -- was up at six AM and saw what he unequivocally thinks was a mother thylacine with several pups.  What sets his account apart is that he claims he heard the animal vocalizing, and what he describes is very similar to how the howling of thylacines was described in accounts from the nineteenth century.

TAGOA explains the sighting as follows:
Last night, however, when we spoke and I interviewed them both, it was clear he now has 100% belief in what his wife had witnessed as he too has now seen the unbelievable.  A podcast of our discussion will be released soon on our YouTube channel, as well as Mark Taylor's report when he heads out there in the next day or so to set up trail cameras and get a handle on the area….more to come soon...

The witnesses both claim that they have heard weird noises of a screaming nature several times and just fobbed it off.  The beauty of this sighting is that the husband saw the mother (animal) make the weird screechy noise…that part is rare as rocking horse shit.

Which is a wonderful simile that I will be sure to incorporate in my conversations from now on.

Okay, I know, claims like this are a dime a dozen, and I've been unhesitating in dismissing that sort of thing vis-à-vis bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster.  But at least this claim has going for it that we know thylacines did exist at some point in the past, which is more than I can say for most other cryptids.

And wouldn't it be wonderful if the claim was borne out?  It would mean there was a breeding population of thylacines not just in Tasmania but in mainland Australia that has persisted since the last wild sighting occurred in 1931.  And hell, the coelacanth was supposedly extinct for sixty-odd-million years until someone caught one off the coast of Madagascar, so stranger things have happened.

Anyhow, keep your eye on Australia.  It'll be interesting to see how the ongoing search progresses.  How encouraging would it be to find out that at least one of us humans' attempts to wipe out an entire species actually failed?


Just last week, I wrote about the internal voice most of us live with, babbling at us constantly -- sometimes with novel or creative ideas, but most of the time (at least in my experience) with inane nonsense.  The fact that this internal voice is nearly ubiquitous, and what purpose it may serve, is the subject of psychologist Ethan Kross's wonderful book Chatter: The Voice in our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It, released this month and already winning accolades from all over.

Chatter not only analyzes the inner voice in general terms, but looks at specific case studies where the internal chatter brought spectacular insight -- or short-circuited the individual's ability to function entirely.  It's a brilliant analysis of something we all experience, and gives some guidance not only into how to quiet it when it gets out of hand, but to harness it for boosting our creativity and mental agility.

If you're a student of your own inner mental workings, Chatter is a must-read!

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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