When Hannah, the narrator of Lois Nowra's Into That Forest, encounters her first Tasmanian tiger, she is mesmerized:
I turned and there, on the bank not more than ten yards from us, were a wolf creature with yellow fur and black stripes. It were about the size of a real large dog…It had a long muzzle and stripes on its sides like a tiger. The tail were thick and the fur so fine and smooth, it were like it didn't have hair. It's like a wolf, I heard me mother say, and indeed it looked like those wolves I seen in me fairy-tale books. It stared at us with huge black eyes, then it opened its jaw real slow till I thought it could swallow a baby. I'd have bailed out if it were not the most bonny, handsomest thing I ever seen.
The Tasmanian tiger is certainly one of the most exotic animals you could meet in a novel – it isn't related to the Asian tiger that we're all familiar with but was a marsupial mammal that evolved to fill a similar niche in Australia. By the time the early European settlers arrived, the animals were rare, if not extinct, on the mainland, but survived in good numbers in Tasmania, an island state of Australia.
As the largest modern marsupial carnivore, Tasmanian tigers (Thylacinus cynocephalus, also called simply "thylacines") baffled the European naturalists who first laid eyes on them. The fact that they bear a passing resemblance to wolves is an example of parallel evolution (the independent evolution of similar traits, starting from a similar ancestral condition). But thylacines did not hunt in packs, did not behave aggressively toward humans, and were exceedingly shy. Wallabies are believed to have been their favorite food. Like all marsupials, Tasmanian tigers gave birth to tiny, underdeveloped young called joeys and carried them to maturity inside pouches. Thylacines were unique in that the male animals had pouches of their own – not for carrying young but for protecting the sex organs.
No recordings of thylacine vocalizations have survived; there are only written descriptions of various sounds – from a cough-like bark to a hiss. One of the thylacine's best known and most astonishing habits, was its way of opening its jaw to a seemingly impossible angle, a feat Louis Nowra describes as a "threat yawn." It might have been a trick meant to give a rival male a good look at the teeth, or a feature that evolved to help the tiger get a good grip on a wallaby.
The Tasmanian tiger's closest living relative is thought to be that small, fierce marsupial carnivore, the Tasmanian devil. The paleontological history of marsupials in Australia is twisted and complex, but the thylacines are believed to be an ancient species, part of a line that dates from the late Oligocene Epoch (33-24 million years ago). Thylacines feature prominently in the rock art produced by prehistoric aborigines, both on the island of Tasmania and on the Australian continent. The name Hannah gives to her Tasmanian tiger mother in Into That Forest - "Corinna" - is related to "coorinna," one of the names aboriginal Tasmanians had for the animals.
The last Tasmanian tiger, a zoo specimen known as Benjamin, died in captivity in 1936. The tigers were hunted to extinction, rounded up in sweeping bounty hunting programs sponsored by land development companies. The virulence and thoroughness of this extermination program is hair-raising. Early colonists saw the thylacines as "vermin," a threat to sheep farming. The strange thylacines must also have seemed frightening and uncanny to early European settlers – and the thylacines themselves were, like many island populations, inherently fragile because of a lack of genetic diversity. The Tasmanian tiger became a side-show curiosity and a sought-after zoo specimen even as people began to wake up to the fact that there would soon be no more of these rare animals. By the time a law was passed protecting the Tasmanian tiger in 1938, it was too late.
The Tasmanian tiger has become a potent symbol for wildlife conservation, especially in Australia. At the same time, there is a robust culture of tiger spotters, people who claim to have photographic or bone evidence of the continued existence of thylacines deep in the Tasmanian wilds. Other thylacine enthusiasts suggest that the tigers are prime candidates for "de-extinction." Attempts have been made to extract thylacine DNA from museum specimens in order to sequence it, and maybe, to create a clone.
For more about Tasmania's wilderness and ecology, see the Beyond the Book for The World Beneath.
Picture of Tasmanian Tiger from Wikipedia.com (Smithsonian Institute Archives)
This article is from the October 16, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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