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The Strange Case of the Veiled Thylacine

Speaking of thylacines, there is something I've been meaning to write about. In general, I really like the Smithsonian's new Hall of Mammals. But there is one thing about it that really irritates me: the thylacine is displayed behind a curtain. There is a dingo in the foreground, and dimly visible behind it is the outline of the thylacine. The Darwinian visual argument is that the thylacine was driven to extinction by the more highly evolved dingo. If you push a button, a light illuminates the thylacine so you can see it a little better, though still not very well. Here are a couple of pictures.

First, here is the thylacine's bottom, which you can see if you crane your head a bit.

Smithsonian thylacine's bottom

The Washington Post remarks that the museum staff had some problems with mounting the thylacine:

Extinct animals that are represented include the thylacine, an Australian mammal known as the Tasmanian tiger or wolf, which was wiped out by the dingo, a wild dog. The thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial, was also the hardest animal for the staff to mount and preserve. The museum received the skin in the 1920s, but the fur was in bad shape and needed major reconditioning.

Note that the Washington Post staff writer, Jacqueline Trescott, is under the mistaken impression that dingoes caused the thylacine's extinction. Dingoes may have wiped it out in Australia, but the thylacine's final demise in Tasmania, its last range, walked on two legs, not four. It is one of the really clearcut cases of a species driven to extinction by human action. The online Thylacine Museum's discussion of the thylacine's history from 1805 to 1933 concludes:

Guiler (1966) states that the last confirmed wild thylacine was shot at Mawbanna in April of 1930.  That year, a closed season on hunting was granted for December, the alleged breeding season.  On 7 September 1936, the last captive died in the Hobart Zoo.  Ironically, in that same year, thylacines received total legal protection.  By then however, it was far too late.

We can see hairless patches on the hindquarters; the Smithsonian's thylacine is not in great shape. But there can't be many out there to see. The Thylacine Museum lists only two on display in North America: the Smithsonian's and one at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The majority of the Smithsonian's visitors will never have seen a thylacine before and never will again. This is all they get: a veiled indistinct animal hiding behind a curtain presented as an evolutionary dead end -- a deserved extinction.

Smithsonian thylacine

This second picture was taken while I stood on one foot, keeping my other on the button to keep the light on. It is the best of several shots. Once I was finished attempting to take pictures, all the children had escaped and there was no time to read them the plaque. (The back of the dingo is in the foreground.)

So how did the thylacine come to take the veil? Was the Smithsonian embarrassed by its motley specimen? Was the person in charge of designing the "interactive" aspects of the Hall of Mammals given too much power and authority? Is the Smithsonian embarrassed to have acquired the pelt so soon before the species went extinct? Did someone with no concept of the scarcity of thylacine specimens design the exhibit? Did someone feel a sexual attraction to it perhaps? (Was Ashcroft struck with a desire to mount the thylacine?) Or is it a visual pun -- curtains for the thylacine? Who knows.

From the perspective of the future of mammals on this planet, the thylacine is one of the most important specimens in the Hall of Mammals, since on our current trajectory, many other species exhibited may soon share its fate.

Take down the curtain and face the Sixth Extinction.