Tracing a thylacine stomach
Updated: Aug 3
WHAT IS IT?
Among a fairly random assemblage of dried bits and plaster casts of hearts, a crumpled brown leathery sack, stiff with age, has the unassuming label “Phys. Cat. 390/D Stomach of Thylacinus ha____? No history”
This unassuming, unappealing find is actually really important, from the backrooms of the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge.
The thylacine, “Tasmanian wolf” or “Tasmanian tiger”, was a wonderful example of convergent evolution. Stranded on the continent of Australia which separated from the other land masses in the time of dinosaurs, the mammals there went their own way, reproducing by either laying eggs (like the echidna and platypus) or nurturing their young in a pouch as a marsupial. Despite this early separation from the “placental” mammals, they radiated into animals from rats to kangaroos, and in the case of the thylacine, something very like a wolf. However, the thylacine also had stripes – so took the tiger name. Even as a skeleton, it can be difficult to distinguish from its distant placental cousins.
The last captive Thylacine died at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania on the night of the 7th September 1936. It had been known to Western science for just over 100 years, and ironically, had been declared protected in the wild just two months earlier. The species was never studied, so, there are limitations as to what can be found out about the animals, and it is all with the hindsight of their extinction in mind.
TIME OF DEATH – CRUCIAL HINTS
When this random stomach was prepared for the museum, it wasn’t particularly special, except perhaps for its exotic origin of an animal from Australia, a continent that only became known to Europeans perhaps 200 years beforehand. It was probably being prepared to be filled with plaster as an anatomical model – however, somewhere in that process the anatomist lost it or lost interest and it ended up as a dried deflated relic of its former self.
We don’t even know for certain when the specimen was collected – but it must have been after the time of Captain Cook’s journey to the south in 1768 and before the last captive animal died in 1936. We do know of “collecting expeditions” to the continent by the 1850s, and this is a far more likely date for the specimen's acquisition. Also, theand that this stomach was found in a box along with a dried out swim bladder of a fish called a gurnard, which is noted in the museum catalogue inventory as “missing” in 1893, giving support to the museum having received the specimen in the late 1850s.
As an aside, the gurnard is a strange thing to find in a box of stomachs and caecums of mammals, with the odd turtle heart thrown in. But a gurnard is a strange fish. It is a bottom dweller that has retained its swim bladder, apparently for the express purpose of beating it like a drum to make an acoustic grunt from which the “gurnard” gets its name. Obviously, someone was interested in how that evolved, but got distracted. But that’s another investigation for another day. Back to our thylacine.
MORTON ALLPORT – NOT A THYLACINE HANGOUT
The first step in our investigation was to look at other thylacine remains in the collection. Many specimens are noted “Morton Allport”. So many, that it is easy to mistake for a place where surplus thylacines gather. In fact, C. J. Morton Allport (1830 – 1878) was a person; a Staffordshire born, Australian raised solicitor in the Supreme Court of Tasmania, who had a passion for nature and sending specimens, from marsupials to fish, back to the “mother country”, which earned him a Fellowship of the Linnean Society. He is responsible for 12 out of the 21 thylacine specimens in the museum's collection!
Looking further into our stomach (metaphorically), this type of preparation was most likely performed by an anatomist on a fresh specimen. Given that in the 1800s the sea voyage from Australia to Britain took 70 days on average, by which point anything not preserved would be a stinky rotten mess (sailors excluded – probably). Which leaves two possibilities: our stomach was either half-prepared, neglected but then shipped from Australia by an anatomist working there, or it was from a thylacine that lived and died in Victorian Britain, and so a fresh specimen was on hand for the scientists here. Morton Allport was not an anatomist, so the latter seems most likely.
A further clue is provided by three items in the museum's spirit collection:
• A6. 7/16 – everted pouch
• A6. 7/17 – dissected intestine
• A6. 7/18 – lungs, heart, tongue
What this unappetising list suggests is that a thylacine was dissected, and these reference specimens were preserved in spirit. And what is missing from this list of various guts is… the stomach! This suggests an experienced anatomist had most, if not all, of a fresh thylacine to work with. The organ specimens are listed as coming from either the Zoological Society Gardens, or the Royal College of Surgeons, both based in London. Reading through the records of other museum specimens received from them, they housed a veritable menagerie of exotic creatures. Whenever one of these strangers in a strange land died, they were offered to the Royal College of Surgeons for their comparative anatomists to dissect. Any duplicates or spares where then sent on to Cambridge!
This is where our investigative work becomes much easier because someone else has done all the hard work!
THE FIRST THYLACINE SPECIMENS IN BRITAIN - GRISLY POST
Thylacine specimens were beginning to be sent to Britain by as early as 1805. This was during the time when the boat journey took on around 70 to 100 days, so anything "fresh" from Australia would be quite grisly by its arrival in port, so would typically be preserved in some way, either in spirit or dried in salt. The first known specimen was the penis of the type specimen, sent to Sir Joseph Banks by Lieutenant Governor William Paterson. It is now lost, possibly thrown out as smelly rubbish as the last fleshy remains of a dodo were almost discarded.
The Richard Owen dissection of 1842
Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892) was a British biologist and the driving force behind the establishment of the British Museum of Natural History. He was conservator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons from 1842 to 1856, having been the assistant to the previous conservator William Clift from 1827. Owen dissected several Thylacine specimens during his tenure at the Hunterian Museum. In his paper entitled: “Account of a Thylacinus, the great dog-headed opossum, one of the rarest and largest of the marsupiate family of animals” (Report of the 11th Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Volume 11, 1842, pp. 70-71), Owen states:
“He was indebted to Sir John Franklin, who had kindly preserved and sent him a specimen in spirit, and he believed that this was the only specimen extant in Europe”.
A number of anatomical observations gleaned from Owen’s dissections of Thylacines are noted in his book ‘Anatomy of Vertebrates’, published in 1868. Owen gives the length of the intestinal canal in a Thylacine he dissected with a snout to vent measurement of 3 foot 4 inches (102cms), as being 9 foot 8 inches (295cms). He then makes comparison (in tabular form) to the length of the intestinal canal in other marsupials [1868 Anatomy of Vertebrates, Volume 3, p.420]. Owen describes the marsupium (pouch) of a female thylacine, and comments on the young [1868 Anatomy of Vertebrates, Volume 3, p.774].
Investigation of correspondence between Richard Owen and the Museum shows only a sparse record, between Owen and William Clark in 1834 about the auction of items from the Royal College of Surgeons (whose museum closed in 1834 for extensive refurbishment) and includes a receipt for a kangaroo skeleton “that never had a tail – maybe one from another specimen could be substituted”. Richard Owen is also noted in the museum records as the donor for some human teeth and mammal specimens in 1840, and some Moa bones later. However, he had a domineering presence and grand ambitions for his own museum (to become the Natural History Museum) and some quite unappealing personal traits due to this ambition, which I won't go into further.
AN AUSTRALIAN THYALCINE IN LONDON? THYLACINE BIOGRAPHERS
In 1850, the first live thylacine went on display in England at the Zoological Gardens in London. Since Clara the Rhino, society had a taste for seeing exotic animals, and numerous travelling menageries had roamed the land in the early 1800s, showing numerous wonders of the now expanded world to a public eager to see and learn.
For example, George Wombwell’s Menagerie in the U.K. contributed a number of exotic specimens to various museums including Aberdeen, Norwich and Cambridge – the latter holding skeletons from a llama, an Indian rhino, a lion and a lion/tiger hybrid; but never a thylacine. At least, not in England. But their menagerie in Australia did, and when that animal died, its remains ended up in Uppsala in Sweden!
How do we know this? Because the marvellous people at the wonderful International Thylacine Specimen Database (ITSD). Every one of the 815 known thylacine specimens has been documented, and where possible, traced by them. Most are dried skins, dry skeletons or wet specimens kept in formalin. Unique amongst them is this dried stomach!
In total, 21 thylacines are known to have lived in Britain; 20 of them are accounted for through the Zoological Society in London. The zoo's historian, John Edwards, compiled a list from the historic records of the ZSL. In addition, one animal that survived quarantine at London Zoological Gardens was then transported to William Cross’s menagerie park in Liverpool, one other animal is known to have been alive in Britain – on display at Bostock’s Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus in Glasgow. Edward Bostock happens to be the nephew of George Wombwell – so obviously learned the family business.
Thylacines living in Victorian Britain.
The Hurst/Gunn Specimen – ZSL died 1870
The series of organs in the UMZC as A6. 7.16-18 is believed to be from the female who died at London Zoo in 1870. Her history is as below:
A female Thylacine was caught, together with her pups, by the son of a Mr Thomas Hurst at Pipers River, Tasmania in September 1862. The family group were then acquired by Ronald Campbell Gunn [December 1862] and subsequently donated to the London Zoo, arriving on the 2nd May 1863. Two pups died in transit, but the mother survived and lived for 7 years at the ZSL. She died on the 23rd January 1870 and her body forwarded to the RC.
A6.7/16 [everted pouch] is recorded in the Physiological catalogue of the RC (Vol III Ref 1577). A6. 7/17 [dissection of intestine] is recorded in the Physiological catalogue of the RC (517.E). Although A6. 7/18 [lungs, heart, tongue] is not listed as being sourced from the RC.
In the second paragraph, we see our list of thylacine bits in spirit were also recorded in the Royal College of Surgeons’ catalogue. The very suggestive part of this is that of this fairly comprehensive thoracic dissection, the stomach is unaccounted for!
OTHER THYLACINE SUSPECTS
The William Cross specimen – Liverpool 1888-?
Other possibilities include the William Cross specimen that, after a period in quarantine at ZSL, was sent to Liverpool in 1888. The remains of this animal have not yet been traced (oh, another mystery for another day).
The J. W. Clark Specimen - 1868
Another untraced specimen is the one purchased “in the flesh” by John Willis Clark. Listed as A6. 7/7, a female thylacine skeleton. A skeleton of a juvenile female, purchased by J.W.Clark around August 1868. It is linked to an archive record detailing a letter from a Fred Bonzon at “A. Schwarzschild & Co., 32 Lombard Street, London” to J.W.Clark written on 17th June 1868 – summarised as follows:
Wants to know if the Museum has purchased a collection of Animals from Hobart Town, consisting of 3 Platypus, 1 Muskrat, 3 Wombats, 1 Black Snake, 1 Whip Snake, 2 Jews Lizards, 1 Bloodsucker, 2 common Lizards, 1 Guana, 1 Deaf Adder, 1 Carpet Snake, 1 Tiger (Thylacinus) and 1 Devil.
A second letter from R.Lowery, at the same address says:
The prices are as follows: 1 Platypus £4-4-0, 1 Wombat £3-3-0, 1 Thylacinus £16. The price of the Devil waits for it to be identified.
It is unclear if “in the flesh” refers to J W Clark accepting it in person, or if the specimens had flesh on them. It is unlikely that it was intact because of the aforementioned issue of rot whilst transporting dead specimens from Australia. However, it may consist of a dried skeleton and perhaps a tanned skin which would be more pleasant to retain.
There is no clear link here to where the specimens came from (but might be presumed to be sent as a job lot from Australia, they don’t seem to correspond to specific animals that were kept and died in this country), or what “A. Schwarzschild & Co.” were doing with various Australian animals. It is noted that they were a fur dealers, situated in the middle of London’s banking area – and later were primarily bankers.
In any case, it seems unlikely to be the source of a fresh stomach to then be prepared by dissection. It is, however, an illustration of how obscure the sources of such animals can become.
CONCLUSIONS AND INFERENCES
Though the exact origin of this specimen is still unknown, the following can likely be inferred:
It is likely to have been prepared from a fresh animal that died whilst living in Britain.
It was probably prepared between 1842 (the start of major thylacine specimens in Britain) and 1893 (when the accompanying gurnard swim bladder was noted as lost). It was never intended to be preserved as is, but instead, was likely destined to be filled with plaster to become an anatomical model.
The number of candidate animals living in Britain is relatively small, and many can be ruled out as their remains are known to be held elsewhere. Possible sources include:
The William Cross thylacine that lived in Liverpool from 1888-? and the whereabouts of whose remains are unknown.
The Richard Owen specimen dissected in 1842 might have been sent on to UMZC rather than held at his own museum the Hunterian. However, there is no paperwork or correspondence on this to suggest it to be the case.
The J W Clark specimen purchased in 1868 from A. Schwarszchild & Co. in Lombard Street, London, but this is likely a tanned skin only or just the skeleton.
These potential candidates aside, the most likely source is a female thylacine that died at London Zoo in 1870 (The Hurst/Gunn specimen), which was dissected by the Royal College of Surgeons, and whose remains are believed to be in the museum's spirit collection as objects A6. 7/16-18. If correct, this unique stomach specimen can likely be traced to one individual thylacine, where it was captured, how it lived in London and other parts of it preserved in spirit. Not a bad day (months) of detective work!
The ever wonderful Matt Lowe shared a note from a colleague who was intrigued by the dried thylacine stomach on twitter*. Rosi Crane from Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand shared a paper discussing novel methods of preserving things including internal organs, written by Sidney Harmer in 1881. Sidney Harmer would go on to be the superintendent of our Museum of Zoology before then running the Natural History Museum in London. Could he be the anatomist we are loooking for, who worked on the thylacine stomach? He prepared bits of penguin and porpoise that are still in the museum in New Zealand. I read the paper with interest (and a strong stomach, matched only by strong brains and strong intestine - all of which he preserved from a skate). But alas, he only came to the museum in Cambridge in 1892, and probably instigated the stock check that noted the gurnard fish swim bladder as "missing" in 1893. So, probably not our dissector.
*I am twitter-illiterate. When I searched for this post I ended up at "What's in John's Freezer?", which was a lovely blog giving stomach-churning ratings to the various things he was freezing to preserve from bugs, such as opposum-digested-by-gator, so I've linked to that instead. Sorry. Also, not sorry.
With many grateful thanks to Stephen at the ITSD:
Sleightholme, S. R. & Ayliffe, N., International Thylacine Specimen Database. CD-Rom. Master Copy: Zoological Society, London, 2005, 2006 (2nd Rev), 2009 (3rd Rev), 2011 (4th Rev), 2013 (5th Rev), 2017 (6th Rev).