Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil

By Peter Day | Go to book overview

Vampire Dogs and Marsupial Hyenas: Fear, Myth, and
the Tasmanian Tiger's Extinction

Phil Bagust


1. Introduction

Tasmania…was an otherworldly colony, even by the
standards normal to wilderness colonies. Outside the
tiny fortified settlements, the woods were haunted by a
bandit subculture of runaway convicts, as well as by a
scattered population of angry, fearful Aborigines…Also,
there were strange beasts.1

This, I hope, will be a vampire paper with a difference. The Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus, loosely translated as “the pouched dog with the wolf-like head”) is also known as the Marsupial Wolf, the Marsupial Hyena or more commonly today simply as the Thylacine. This remarkable beast was (is?) the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. A fully-grown specimen could measure over two metres from nose to tail and stand about sixty centimetres tall at the shoulder. Its wolflike form represents a stunning example of “parallel” evolution, where animals separated on the evolutionary tree, often by millions of years, have come to physically and behaviourally resemble one another because they have filled similar environmental niches. To the trained eye, however, the Thylacine still betrays its marsupial origins with its kangaroo-like hindquarters, semi-rigid tail, and a series of dark vertical stripes that give it its best known common name, “Tasmanian Tiger.”2

Confined to the Australian island state of Tasmania at the time of European settlement in 1803, and as the top predator in its ecosystem, the Thylacine was subject to systematic and officially sanctioned persecution by colonial society for over a century until the last wild animal was finally shot in 1930. A few specimens lingered on in Tasmanian zoos until 1936, when “Benjamin” (actually a female) died quietly and without fanfare. Ironically the Tasmanian government had finally passed legislation formally protecting them in that same fateful year.

Since 1936 stories about the Thylacine have never been entirely absent from the Australian media and its aura has grown with every alleged sighting of living animals. It is today one of the world's most famous “recently extinct” larger mammals. In the absence of the “beast in the flesh,” the image of the Thylacine has become a valuable commodity, coming to symbolise all things Tasmanian - taking centre stage on that state's car number plates, its tourist campaigns and even featuring in

-93-

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