31 August 2019

Cryptid Cats and Dogs of the Far North

There have been some recent reports of possible sightings of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) in the far north of Queensland. The witnesses were reasonable sources - a Park Services employee and a frequent camper - although these encounters did happen at night and there is no footage. The sightings were interesting enough to warrant further investigation from scientists at the James Cook University, who are now looking at setting up numerous 'camera traps' in the areas (although that project is also focussed on other wildlife).

Thylacines. (John Gould)

The last known Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in Hobart in 1936, which was also the year that other reports of cryptid sightings emerged from north Queensland. On that occasion, the Victorian naturalist Charles Barrett led an expedition to Mount Bellenden Ker, between Innisfail and Cairns, which at a height of 1,593 metres is the second highest peak in Queensland, behind its neighbour Mt. Bartle Frere. The ranges there had been the site of cryptid speculation back in 1899, when former politician and journalist Archibald Meston was part of an expedition that heard local Aboriginal people talk about a deep pool with a 'long-necked monster who used to swish about in the water, especially at night time'. Meston dismissed claims that this could have been a bunyip, and instead suggested that such a disturbance could have been a large fish eating a water bird.

Barrett later reported his belief that the 'dense jungle on the mountain was one of the haunts of the mysterious 'marsupial tiger'.' He had not witnessed the creature himself, but his guide Arnold Leumann (a 'noted North Queensland guide and bushman') claimed to have seen one. Leumann described the animal as being 'about the size of a dingo, but with a short, blunt head, rather like that of a tiger. It's body and tail were striped like a tiger's. It was perched on the branch of a tree, and snarled and spat at him.'

The Bellenden Ker ranges.

Leumann was aged around 40 years at the time, and was well respected as a knowledgeable guide. Barrett was not skeptical about the existence of the animal, which he presumed to be marsupial and 'might be an unusually large species of tiger-cat'. After reading Barrett's report, the Brisbane Museum director Heber Longman said that he had been interested in the possibility of such an animal for many years, but there was nothing more than hearsay evidence to support claims of its existence.

Alfred White of Burleigh Heads, who was an old friend of Leumann, responded to the reports by saying he 'could vouch for the accuracy of the description of any animal seen by him', but believed that the animal described was a 'marsupial tiger, a large specimen of the native cat'. He was familiar with Bellenden Ker and suggested that a search on the western side of the range - where there was plentiful food for a large cat - would be the best bet for finding a specimen. 

There was reasonable speculation that what had been seen was a 'tiger cat', which could refer to the tiger quoll (Dasyurus maculatus gracilis), an endangered species found in a small region of northern Queensland, including the Bellenden Ker area. The average length of these animals is 80cm (male) and 75cm (female).

Talk of the 'tiger cat' could also refer to the 'Queensland tiger', which is considered to be a cryptid, although one with a feasible chance of actually being real. Known within Aboriginal culture as the yarri, it is said to be a 'dog-sized feline with stripes and a long tail, prominent front teeth and a savage temperament'. Such an animal could be a descendant of the extinct predatory marsupial Thylacoleo (T. carnifex) or even a variety of large feral cat. The story of large cats being descended from mascot pumas brought to Queensland by American soldiers during World War II is apparently an urban myth.

Restoration of T. carnifex.
Restoration of T. carnifex. (Nobu Tamura [http://spinops.blogspot.com])

Another theory, posited by tree kangaroo expert Roger Martin, is that the sightings could be of either Lumholtz's or Bennett's tree kangaroos, animals which walk on four legs when on the ground and are found in small areas of far north Queensland.

Indigenous accounts of the yarri date back through time, and the earliest non-Indigenous reports emerged in 1871. Sightings were quite consistent, although reports have declined in number since the 1950s. The Australian zoologist Albert Sherbourne Le Souef described the animal in his 1926 book The Wild Animals of Australasia as being a 'Striped marsupial cat', a description also provided by Australian Museum curator Ellis Troughton in his Furred Mammals of Australia (1965) although he also proposed that it could be a mainland variant of the thylacine. This idea was also shared by Cape York artist Percy Trezise.

The notion that the 'Queensland tiger' might actually be a mainland thylacine has been promoted by cryptozoologists for some time, although there are clear differences between the descriptions of the cats and the thylacines, such as in their head shape, position and colouring of the stripes, and arboreal habits. Nevertheless, the idea that a remnant population might exist cannot be dismissed out of hand, and researcher Sandra Abell, from James Cook University’s Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, commented about the field survey in the region where the recent thylacine sightings were reported:

'It is a low possibility that we’ll find thylacines, but we’ll certainly get lots of data on the predators in the area and that will help our studies in general.' 
It was “not impossible” there were thylacines to be found, she said. “It’s not a mythical creature. A lot of the descriptions people give, it’s not a glimpse in the car headlights. People who say they’ve actually seen them can describe them in great detail, so it’s hard to say they’ve seen anything else. 
“I’m not ruling it out at all, but to actually get them on camera will be incredibly lucky.'

I'm not aware of the precise location of these sightings - it would appear that researchers are keen to keep them quiet, and for good reason - but there is a real history of reports of cryptids in the forests of far north Queensland. And unlike the cases of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, there is a genuine chance that small populations of 'Queensland tigers' or thylacines could exist. As much as we all want these animals to have survived in some form, there is a damning lack of physical evidence (bones, scats, hair, prints, decent footage) to support the idea, and the prospect of 'mistaken identity' with eyewitness accounts cannot be dismissed. Still, we can all dream...