‘Exciting’ new thylacine discovery sheds light on extinct Tasmanian marsupial

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In the darkest depths of 2020, a charming story shone light on our lives.

A group of researchers in the United States shined a black light – a type of ultraviolet light – on preserved platypus skin to find that it glowed.

The story went viral worldwide, and researchers at the Western Australian Museum were inspired to shine a black light on many specimens, such as bilbies and wombats, finding that these marsupials also glowed.

Platypus have been found to glow green under black light.(Supplied: Mammalia)

It left ABC Radio Hobart reporter Lucie Cutting wondering; do thylacines follow this rule and would they glow under black light?

Thylacines, or Tassie tigers, were the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials before they were hunted to extinction.

In 1936, Benjamin, the last known thylacine, died of exposure at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart.

The species continues to fascinate people around the world, with some believing it is still alive and others planning its return.

Have our dreams been darkened forever?

Some of the world’s rare thylacine skins can be found at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, our first stop on the mission to find out if Tasmanian tigers shine.

Lucie and I approached the institution to ask if we could visit their thylacine skins and shine a black light on them.

We waited, nervous and excited for their response, but received a “no” and an explanation as to why.

Thylacine Gallery
A new gallery is devoted to the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger.(Provided: Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania)

Black light is damaging to museum specimens because it causes irreparable damage at a rapid rate.

Museums are very protective of examples of the species as there are only about 50 complete skins recorded in collections worldwide.

Shining a black light on a specimen may add another piece to a confusing puzzle of glowing species, but at what cost to the world’s few remaining thylacine pelts?

The museum was unwilling to take that risk but provided us with contact details for someone who could help us.

A person in a suit without a tie sits smiling at the camera.  They smile.  Behind them is a microscope and a computer screen
David Thurrowgood has identified a thylacine skin in New Zealand which is considered to be one of the best preserved specimens.(ABC Radio Hobart: Lucie Coupe)

Our knight with a shining black light

Conservator David Thurrowgood’s imagination was captured when he saw the story of biofluorescent platypus and he spent the next few years finding the equipment to apply the same test to thylacine fur.

Mr. Thurrowgood is a highly regarded independent conservator who cares for and preserves museum specimens.

He is currently designing a state-of-the-art museum case for a thylacine skin.

The curator has a small tuft of fur and half a thylacine mustache to experiment with.

Thylacine Whiskers
Half of a thylacine whisker was used in the black light experiment.(Provided: David Thurrowgood)

“I’ve been keeping my eye on this particular instrument, the fluorescence microscope, to be able to do this work,” said Thurrowgood as he welcomed us to his Launceston lab.

“I gradually built everything up and put it aside so that we could do this.

“Putting it on thylacine hair for the first time is quite an exciting time.”

Thylacine remains are precious, and using these small samples might be the only opportunity for any of us to answer that question.

“Normally that wouldn’t be possible,” Thurrowgood said.

See an old specimen in a new light

There is palpable excitement in the room; Lucie is filming and I feel my heart racing as I nervously squeeze the microphone and Mr Thurrowgood prepares the specimen.

His microscope hooks up to screens that display centuries-old black, disheveled hair.

With a subtle gesture, Mr. Thurrowgood wraps the instrument in a sheet to block out the light in the room.

Then, the moment of truth.

He lifts the sheet and points a black light at the fur. And?

“It shines.”

Mr. Thurrowgood speaks the triumphant words as the fur on the screen lights up an impossible blue, strong and bright.

“I can’t believe it shines.”

We are all three delighted.

A microscopic image of bright blue shiny hairs.  There are two hairs in focus.
Under black light, thylacine hair pigments glow bright blue.(Provided: Francesca Thurrowgood)

Kept in the dark, until now

As we stare at the screen, Mr. Thurrowgood explains that each strongly shiny point on the hair is a pigmentation that gives the hair color.

“I can see all these tiny specks of glow right where the pigment particles are. It’s exciting – it’s such a result,” he said.

The bristles used by Mr Thurrowgood came from one of the best preserved thylacine skins in the world and he is responsible for bringing it back to Australia.

The skin was purchased by eccentric New Zealand collector Archibald Robertson in the 1920s.

He had a private museum in his house and kept the specimen in a dark, almost airtight drawer.

It has rarely seen the light and has retained a deep, lush caramel appearance, unlike its battered and faded counterparts in museums today.

“He’s not hobbled, so his hair is in good shape. It actually looks like the thylacines used to do,” Mr Thurrowgood said.

In recent years the thylacine skin had found a new home when Mr Robertson’s daughter, Janet Withers, lent it to her friends at a canoe and taxidermy hire shop, where luckily she had no not suffered much damage.

The skin came to the attention of the scientific community when a visitor to the canoe shop spotted it and posted a picture on social media.

After analyzing the photos, Mr Thurrowgood went to meet Ms Withers in Whanganui, New Zealand, and acquired the specimen to test and authenticate in Australia.

It was later purchased by the National Museum of Australia. It is recognized as one of the best preserved thylacine skins in the world.

The warm glow fades

As we continue to stare at the shiny hair, the mood changes and becomes darker.

“Not long ago they were around us in the wild and they were destroyed by ignorance,” Mr Thurrowgood said.

“The same thing is happening now with climate change and changes in the environment.

“There are fantastic animals and plants that are under great stress and growing all the time…losing more of them would be an absolute tragedy.”

If the thylacine were alive today, we would know a lot more about its behavior and its impact on Tasmania’s environment.

“doing science [experiments] like this shows how many wonders there are yet to be discovered in our natural environment,” said Thurrowgood.

“It’s also a bit of a sad moment to see that it’s something that has left us.”

Enlightening findings leave more questions

“I’m not surprised because we also tried it on thylacine and found the same thing,” said Kenny Travouillon of the WA Museum when I told him about our discovery.

Dr. Travouillon and his team have undertaken the “largest study” ever of mammals that glow under black light, and their results will be published soon.

Photo of white man in lab coat with sample jars
Kenny Travouillon and his team at the WA Museum are studying which animals glow under black light. (Provided by: Kenny Travouillon)

In a preview of his upcoming research, Dr. Travouillon revealed that living relatives of the thylacine – marsupial carnivores such as quolls and devils – also glow under black light.

“The bright black light on these specimens allows us to see a range of colors not typically visible to humans,” he said.

Many animals can see in the UV spectrum and would therefore be able to see these colors, but they are unlikely to perceive them as a glow.

“We’re probably in our infancy to understand how animals communicate with their fur,” Dr Travouillon said.

“There’s a lot of interest in this topic and I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg and it’s good to know more as we study this.”

For Mr Thurrowgood, it is the idea of ​​a thylacine living at night under the black light that remains to him.

“I hope people will be really excited to learn what the different thylacines actually looked like,” he said.

Three people standing, two arm in arm, shouting with joy.
David Thurrowgood, Lucie Cutting and Zoe Kean exemplify the joy of scientific discovery.(Provided by: Constanza Angelucci)
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