For decades, the world thought that Benjamin—an often-photographed male thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, who died in captivity at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania—was the last surviving member of the species. But new research suggests another thylacine, an older female, lived longer than Benjamin and was the true last-known Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) in existence.
Researchers came to this surprising realization after they discovered an unpublished taxidermist’s report from 1936-37 at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) that mentioned working on a thylacine specimen. That document prompted scientists to audit the museum’s full collection of thylacine skeletons and skins.
By process of elimination, they identified the set of remains that belonged to the last-known thylacine. Along the way, they also solved a decades-long mystery about the location of the last Tasmanian tiger’s body.
“We tried to work out which specimens we could trace to something,” says Kathryn Medlock, the museum’s honorary curator of vertebrate zoology, to the Australian Associated Press. “There was just a skeleton and flat skin left over.”
Trapper Elias Churchill captured the older female and sold her to the Beaumaris Zoo in the middle of May 1936. But no one recorded or publicized this exchange because lawmakers had banned ground-based snaring and they could’ve slapped Churchill with a fine for nabbing the animal.
“For years, many museum curators and researchers searched for its remains without success, as no thylacine material dating from 1936 had been recorded in the zoological collection, and so it was assumed its body had been discarded,” says Robert Paddle, a comparative psychologist from the Australian Catholic University, in a statement.
The older female thylacine died on the night of September 7, 1936, and the zoo transferred her body to the museum. There, museum taxidermist William Cunningham skinned the animal’s body and tanned the hide so that staffers could easily take it with them to schools for educational demonstrations. Also for educational purposes, staffers broke apart the thylacine’s skeleton and positioned the bones on a series of five cards.
Researchers found the skin and the bones in a cabinet in the museum’s education department, reports BBC News’ Tiffanie Turnbull. Now, they’ve placed the flat skin and disarticulated skeleton, which is still attached to the five educational cards, on display in the thylacine gallery.
It’s unclear when Benjamin, the second-to-last surviving member of the species, died. And even the name “Benjamin” remains shrouded in controversy. No one who actually worked at the zoo ever called a male thylacine by that name, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) James Dunlevie.
When European settlers began arriving in the South Pacific in the early 1800s, an estimated 5,000 thylacines lived in Tasmania. These striped, semi-nocturnal animals were the largest marsupial carnivores on the planet, but were relatively shy and typically avoided humans. Colonizers incorrectly blamed thylacines for the deaths of their sheep and cattle and began killing the creatures; a government bounty also encouraged hunting, which eventually drove the animals to extinction.
“Most new settlers didn’t really value Australian wildlife, they were just seen as pests to whatever commodity those settlers were trying to cultivate,” said John Woinarski, a conservation biologist at Charles Darwin University, to Australian Geographic’s Angela Heathcote in 2018. “It was all about short-term benefit and profit. I’m sure that most people didn’t think that a bounty on thylacines would result in their extinction, and even if they did, I don’t think that would have been an undesirable outcome for them.”
Though they’ve been extinct for more than 85 years, Tasmanian tigers have been back in the news recently because a United States-based company has unveiled a controversial plan to bring the species back.