Unseen photos of Tasmanian tigers spark 'wonderful' hope more could be discovered

There are over a hundred photos of Tasmanian tigers which are rarely seen by the public. Some have fuelled unfounded myths about the species' behaviour.

Two thylacines at Beaumaris Zoo in 1918 leaning against each other.
Tasmanian tigers filmed at at Beaumaris Zoo in 1918. Source: © Dr. Stephen Sleightholme (private collection)

Most Aussies are aware of iconic footage showing the world’s last Tasmanian tiger pacing and opening its jaws inside a cage. But rare photographs reveal the long-extinct marsupials in a more delicate light.

One image from a private collection, which Yahoo News has published with permission, shows two lounging side-by-side in the sun. The original photograph, which measures just 8.9cm x 8.9cm, was taken at Beaumaris Zoo in 1918.

It was quietly published in a journal for the first time just four years ago after it was purchased at auction in 2004, and other than a few tiger enthusiasts, few people have been aware of its existence. When it was shared to an online naturalist’s forum in June along with several other generally unknown photos taken in overseas zoos, they created a stir.

“So good to see a photo of two together. I am haunted by those photos of one pacing up and down,” one respondent wrote. "This makes me unbearably sad — look at the magnificent things snuggled up together," another said.

"How wonderful that there are still images that we haven’t seen,” someone else added.

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  • Tasmanian tigers are also known as thylacines and Tasmanian wolves.

  • The first thylacine photo was taken in the summer of 1864 by Frank Haes at Regent's Park Zoo in London. It is the only image of a living specimen from the 19th Century.

  • The last was taken in May 1936 at Hobart's Beaumaris Zoo.

The image of the reclining tigers was taken by Reverend George Judd. It's one of just 119 images of the species that are known to exist, several of which were recently unearthed by members of a small group called Tasmanian Tiger Archives. And Wales-based researcher Gareth Linnard believes there are likely more unseen stills yet to be discovered.

“There have been seven found in the last four years, so they’re always being rediscovered. What’s going against us now is that any original photographs are going to be very fragile now, and they will be starting to degrade,” he told Yahoo News.

Only 13 videos have survived to the present day. Linnard is not hopeful more original films will be found as film degrades faster than photographs.

One possibility is that an overlooked digitised archival clip could surface – this happened recently when a short video was discovered for sale on the stock video platform Pond5.

Sadly there aren't any known photographs or videos of tigers in the wild, so the existing catalogue provides little information about how they lived.

This is because animals behave differently in captivity. For instance, studying Northern Hemisphere wolves in captivity led to the myth that they naturally form packs with a dominant hierarchy of alpha males dominating beta males. It was later discovered that this was a strange behaviour that formed because the animals were caged, and it has never subsequently been observed in the wild.

What the tiger images do reveal are insights into human behaviour at the time. Because each tiger's stripes are unique like a human fingerprint, researchers have been able to track the lives of individual animals as they were bought and sold.

One sad story they have uncovered is that of a mother who was captured in the 1920s with two pouched young. Due to the trauma she suffered when she was snared, her captor Walter Mullins was forced to amputate her left fore leg at the wrist. She and her babies were subsequently paraded around at fairs in Tasmania and Victoria.

Another animal photographed in 1933 shows evidence of snare marks on his leg. The zoo's superintendent can be seen bringing a dog up to the wire that housed him, something that would never be allowed today because it would likely cause stress.

Three thylacines in a cage side by side.
The animal on the right was captured by Walter Mullins around June 1923, with three young in her pouch. They were shown at fairs in Tasmania and Victoria before being sold to a zoo in February 1924. Source: Unknown Photographer

While there are some useful written historical accounts about tiger behaviour in the wild, researcher Mike Williams concedes little is known about how they interacted with each other in the wild.

“The only animals we know anything about were in an enclosure. So we don't know what they did, and how they moved with their family. We don't know very much,” he told Yahoo.

“One thing we know is that at the Beaumaris Zoo one was reported making a coughing noise. But no one ever recorded it. So we have stories of tigers making a coughing bark, yip-yip sounds, and howls, but that’s all we know.”

Tasmanian biologist Nick Mooney explained that although written accounts suggest tigers would sometimes stand on two legs, most images show them on all fours. “In those days people waited until animals stopped moving for photos,” he told Yahoo.

Mooney believes films give a better indication of how the species moved, particularly its gait. But one of the creature’s most famous traits is most likely just a reaction to stress caused by confinement.

“The yawning is a displacement activity - a redirection of nervous energy, often from being stared at. Lots of animals and birds do it. Most Tasmanian devil photos from captivity are exactly that. For some reason thylacines are famous for it,” he said.

“For some reason the tiger has entered mythology as an animal with a super wide gape. People are desperate for the fantastic.”

A postcard showing a thylacine staring at the zoo superintendent through a fence.
A 1933 postcard showing a Tasmania wolf at Hobart Zoo. The snare mark is visible on the animal's right leg. Source: H.J.King

Linnard doesn’t believe any photographs of tigers in the wild will surface. He dismisses modern accounts of surviving animals roaming the wilds of Tasmania or mainland Australia.

“I don’t think people were walking around the bush [prior to 1936] with cameras. By the time cameras were prominent enough that somebody might do that, thylacines were so rare the chances of capturing one would be astronomical.”

Linnard’s hope is that one day someone will uncover a colour photograph of a tiger. While there are plenty of hand and computer colourised images in circulation, no true representations exist.

Most of the tiger pelts in museums are decades old and have significantly faded, and it’s believed their stripes may have been more vivid than most depictions indicate.

The last known image of a Tasmanian tiger in a cage in Tasmania.
The last known image of a Tasmanian tiger by Ben Shepherd. Source: Libraries Tasmania

“They were painted at the time, but like the pelts those artist representations have also faded,” Linnard said.

“It would be fantastic if we found colour footage. But I really don’t think it will ever happen."

This is the first of a two part series about the known photographs of Tasmanian tigers.

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