Downfall of the Yarri, or Will the real Thylacoleo please stand up?
In 1926 A. S. le Souef and Harry Burrell included the Striped marsupial cat in their influential popular volume The Wild Animals of Australasia. Concerning a cryptid reported from Australia and usually termed the Queensland tiger, their decision was significant as few cryptids have been regarded so sympathetically by non-cryptozoologists. This near-acceptance reflected both the apparent quality and consistency of eyewitness accounts as well as the long-standing academic interest there had been in the creature. First brought to attention by European Australians in the 1870s, the Queensland tiger has been discussed in the august pages of both the Proceedings of the Zoological Society and the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History and by 1955, when Heuvelmans devoted a chapter to the Queensland tiger in Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées, it seemed that scientific acceptance of the tigers existence was not that far off. But this virtual acceptance of the tigers existence has almost evaporated nowadays; it is not even mentioned in most works on Australasian mammalogy and few who work on living or fossil marsupials regard its existence as a likelihood. Even more interesting is the fact that some cryptozoologists no longer think that the Queensland tiger ever existed at all. What ever happened to one of Australias most compelling and fascinating of mystery beasts?
Relatively well known nowadays is the theory that the Queensland tiger might have been a surviving representative of the thylacoleonids, a group of carnivorous marsupials (often called marsupial lions) known as fossils from Oligocene to Pleistocene times (26 million to 10,000 years ago). Thylacoleonids are part of the same marsupial group as wombats and the giant Diprotodon and until recently were poorly represented in the fossil record, this despite the fact that the first known member of the group, the Pleistocene species Thylacoleo carnifex, was named as early as 1848. Three thylacoleonid genera are now known; primitive, ocelot-sized Priscileo; leopard-sized Wakaleo; and dog- to tiger- sized Thylacoleo, the youngest, largest and most widespread member of the group. Around ten species are known, making this group a constant and significant presence in Cainozoic Australias fossil record. Though hinted at by Heuvelmans in Sur la piste, the suggestion that the Queensland tiger might be a surviving type of Thylacoleo was proposed explicitly by Karl Shuker in 1989. Both Thylacoleo and the Queensland tiger, after all, appear to have been short-headed, sharp-clawed, superficially cat-like predators adept at climbing trees. The idea that relict thylacoleonids might have survived into historic times has correspondingly been widely accepted by cryptozoologists.
However, an alternative concept has recently been proposed by Australian mystery animal researcher Peter Chapple: namely, that the Queensland tiger never existed but was instead a thylacine (also called the Tasmanian tiger or Marsupial wolf). In actuality this is not a new idea - it was intimated by Ellis Troughton in the 1965 edition of Furred Animals of Australia and in 1987 Victor Albert proposed that the Queensland tiger might be a short-faced mainland variant of the thylacine. Often overlooked is Heuvelmans assertion from 1986 that, contrary to his musings of 1955, the Queensland tiger is much more probably [a relict] of the supposedly extinct mainland form of the thylacine. Like Heuvelmans and Troughton but unlike Albert, Chapple does not think that the thylacines later regarded as Queensland tigers were any different from other thylacines: it is all down to misreporting, misinterpretation and inadequate knowledge of thylacine appearance and behaviour. The idea appears initially unlikely seeing as thylacines are not that cat-like, nor are they conventionally regarded as able tree climbers. However, we now know that in fact they were (or are) highly competent climbers. It can also be argued that many Queensland tiger reports are vague and, when reexamined, can be thought of as garbled thylacine descriptions. The following provides an example. In the 1880s, Carl Lumholtz, the famous Norwegian zoologist-explorer and discoverer of obscure marsupials, learnt of the yarri, a dingo-sized tree- climbing predator from northern Queensland. Lumholtzs account has been widely regarded as one of the earliest accounts of the Queensland tiger and has been taken as evidence that an Aboriginal name exists for this cryptid. Checking Lumholtzs account again though, there is nothing in it that really demonstrates that he was not talking about a thylacine.
The Queensland Tiger? Western Victoria, 1964 (Rilla Martin)
There are still problems here though. Firstly, there is at least one Australian cave painting that seems to depict a large striped cat- like animal that does not appear to be a thylacine. Secondly, while it is true that some (maybe most) of the supposed Queensland tiger eyewitness accounts are vague and could well refer to thylacines, there are at least a few that seem hard to pigeon-hole in this way, including some of the best known ones (such as de Tournouer and Scougalls 1909 encounter). Thirdly, Chapples idea obviously requires acceptance of thylacine survival in all of the times and places at which Queensland tigers have been reported, though this is admittedly not a problem if you think that thylacines survive on mainland Australia (officially they died out there 2300 or so years ago). Finally, if Queensland tigers were misidentified thylacines, then the Jaws photo (it depicts the corpse of an apparently striped short-faced mammal found near the Margaret River in or around 1975) is not a Queensland tiger (just what the hell it is no one seems to know). A full published version of Chapples hypothesis has yet to appear and it will be interesting to see the full details of his case when it does.
It goes without saying that if the Queensland tiger never existed at all, then there seems no reason to believe in extant thylacoleonids. But lets forget about Chapples idea and suppose that people have seen extant thylacoleonids. How might they describe them? Would they note the salient points of thylacoleonid morphology, such as the massive opposable thumb with its immense curved claw, or would they describe these cryptids in terms of a big cat frame of reference? In their 1994 book Out of the Shadows Tony Healy and Paul Cropper noted that few eyewitnesses would confuse the tusked, possum-like head of a thylacoleonid with that of a big cat. Indeed, thylacoleonids appear to have looked more like gigantic phalangerids than felids accurate life restorations of thylacoleonids certainly more recall giant cuscuses than pumas. But there actually are some reports that describe Australian cryptids with these very features (read on).
Whether there are Queensland tigers or not, Australia is apparently populated by large tan-furred and dark-furred cats that resemble pumas or leopards. Possibly compelling evidence that these are feral pumas or leopards, much like the alien big cats (ABCs) prevalent in Europe, parts of North America and elsewhere, exists in the form of diagnostic tracks, hairs, livestock kills and photographs. Unfortunately, such evidence has yet to be submitted to the peer-reviewed literature. Australian ABCs (AABCs from hereon) have been identified as felids by experienced handlers of captive big cats and a photo taken in 1978 is almost certainly of an adult puma. A feral lioness was shot in New South Wales in 1985.
However, a rather more bizarre idea was discussed by Rex Gilroy in his 1993 book Mysterious Australia. Namely, that AABCs are not cats at all but, like the traditional (pre-Chapple) Queensland tiger, are also extant thylacoleonids. Gilroy was certainly not the first to propose or discuss this idea, but he seems the only researcher who has taken it on board as a viable theory. The idea of one surviving thylacoleonid species is radical enough (if the Queensland tiger is real), but two species? Given that most AABCs seem to be feral Panthera- or Puma-like felids (at least, based on the descriptions witnesses provide), is there any reason to think that Gilroy might be right? Gilroy has mentioned eyewitness reports of panthers seen sporting rear-facing pouches with pouch young but, with one exception, details are scant. That one exception is Craig Blacks 1961 sighting from Ben Lomond National Park. Black is quoted as saying I am positive I saw that it was carrying a pouched cub.
It is further intriguing that many of the accounts related by Gilroy describe AABCs as decidedly uncat-like. Dubbed devil dogs, these cryptids reportedly have dog-like heads, protruding tusk-like front teeth, and a body shape that witnesses note as being only superficially cat-like. In other words, Gilroys reports describe animals that sound like real thylacoleonids. The sizes of the animals reported as with some of the other cryptids discussed in Gilroys book are difficult to believe, ridiculous even. Indeed, with the exception of the African mngwa or nunda (an unverified giant cat), Gilroys animals would (excluding bears) appear to be the worlds largest extant terrestrial carnivorous mammals. I find it difficult to believe that such creatures await discovery in a continent so notoriously devoid of modern large animals or the resources required to support them. Giant size for any hypothetical surviving thylacoleonid also seems unlikely given that all of the Australian animals that survived the Pleistocene mass extinction are diminutive compared to their Pleistocene relatives and ancestors if thylacoleonids were to survive into modern times, they would surely be dwarf species much smaller than the lion- and tiger-sized giants of the Pleistocene.
If Gilroy thinks that the AABCs are thylacoleonids, what does he make of the Queensland tiger? Various articles demonstrate that Gilroy accepts the authenticity of the Queensland tiger and thinks that its another kind of surviving thylacoleonid. Strangely, it is not mentioned once in Mysterious Australia.
To wrap all of this up
the Queensland tiger may or may not have existed and may or may not have been a totally different animal to the thylacine. If it wasnt a thylacine, it might have been an extant thylacoleonid, though this cant be discovered because (assuming it was distinct from the thylacine) its now thought to be extinct (reports beyond the 1950s are few). Australia does have alien big cats but these mostly seem to be feral leopards and pumas. However, limited anecdotal evidence suggests that some supposed AABCs are marsupials and thus might be extant thylacoleonids, though only one researcher really seems to support this and it seems highly dubious in the absence of good evidence. Could it also be that some of the cryptids discussed here are composites? If modern Australia is home to both thylacines and unstriped cat-like animals, might the striped, cat-like Queensland tiger be a result? Regardless, it is clear that ideas about thylacines, Queensland tigers and unstriped cat-like forms overlap and the distinction between these forms may not always be clear. The occasional inferred presence of yet other Australian cat-like cryptids obfuscates things further; some of these (such as the animal photographed by Rilla Martin in 1964, see above) do appear to be thylacines of some sort while others (such as a 1.8 m-long quoll-like animal killed in 1910) currently defy explanation. There is also a caveat to my comment that hypothetical extant thylacoleonids should be dwarves in that animals answering to this description have been reported, both as live animals and as corpses. That great and persistent irritation in cryptozoology, the loss or absence or specimens, renders these speculations pretty worthless.