Long-hidden Tasmanian tiger pelt comes to light, reveals new secrets

Important findings about the extinct Tasmanian tiger indicate the true beauty of the enigmatic thylacine thanks to a well-preserved pelt.

A microscopic examination of the recently rediscovered pelt revealed the animal’s fur varied in coarseness, shape and colour, and it had at least three layers of body hair.

David Thurrowgood, a Launceston conservator, said the pelt’s colours were much more dramatic than in other faded thylacine pelts that existed in museums, which made the pelt one of the best still in existence.

extreme close-up of fibrous golden hair
Thylacine hair has a complex layered structure with fine hairs close to the body to trap heat.(Supplied: David Thurrowgood)

“There’s only been a handful of observations done of thylacine hair, so I was able to look at the hair in quite a different way and there are eight different types of hair on a thylacine.

“Some of the hairs are hollow, a bit like other species who live in the cold and use those fine pockets of air to keep themselves warm and be well adapted to the Tasmanian climate.”

microscopic view of single thylacine hair, filling the frame
Thylacine hair in extreme close-up as captured by the conservation microscope.(Supplied: David Thurrowgood)

Left in a drawer for decades

When photos of the pelt started circulating online Mr Thurrowgood knew he had to get his hands on the thylacine skin.

He said it was bought originally in 1923 by Archibald Robertson, a natural history collector from New Zealand.

A Tasmanian Tige rpelt, laid flat showing stripes with a ruler and colour chart next to it
This thylacine pelt was discovered in Whanganui in New Zealand.(Supplied: David Thurrowgood)

Robertson stored the thylacine pelt flat in a drawer for decades, which protected it from light and air.

It was not until after his death in 1970 that the pelt was found by his family and hung on the wall of a family friend’s canoe and taxidermy shop.

Fifty years later, thanks to a photo first shared to Twitter, the pelt’s significance has come to light.

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“From there the news made its way back to Australia.”

The DNA of most animal pelts were destroyed by past museum preservation processes that treated the skin with arsenic or mercury, but this pelt had only a light vegetable tanning from the original collector.

After bringing the pelt home to Tasmania, Mr Thurrowgood compared fragments of long DNA it retained with DNA samples held at the University of Melbourne, confirming its authenticity.

Questions remain about enigmatic tiger

The last thylacine in captivity was sent to the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1933 and died there on September 7, 1936.

It was declared extinct by international standards in 1986.

Black and white photo of two Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers in a zoo enclosure in Hobart in 1912.
Two Thylacines in a wire enclosure in Hobart in 1912.(Supplied: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)

Even so, sporadic sightings have continued across the decades and not just in Tasmania.

With almost 45 per cent of Tasmania’s land made up of parks, reserves and World Heritage Sites, and many remote and inaccessible areas, it is speculated that the thylacine may still be lingering out of sight on the island state.

Even Western Australia recorded 203 reported sightings between 1936 and 1998.

The pelt has now found a permanent home at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra’s internationally significant thylacine collection.

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