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Were thylacines ever released on mainland Australia?Printable Version

Important Note

Since publication of this article I have been contacted with further information that indicates that the following theories are not likely to be true. I will update this article again soon!


I wish to express gratitude to Dr Stephen Sleightholme, Project Director (UK) of the International Thylacine Specimen Database (ITSD) for his response to Debbie Hynes' theory on how thylacines may have been released onto the mainland.

Please note that the information which Dr Sleightholme brings to light makes it most likely that Dr MacKenzie did not release live thylacines onto mainland Australia.

Following is additional informaion provided by Dr Sleightholme regarding the MacKenzie collection...

"MacKenzie was primarily interested in preserving organ specimens for future academic study and obtained virtually all of his specimens from thylacine that died at Melbourne zoo. He even had a room set aside at the zoo for autopsy and the liquid preservation of his specimens. He also purchased one dead thylacine from James Harrison the animal dealer in Wynyard [Tasmania]. There are no records of any live purchases by MacKenzie. If MacKenzie had attempted to keep or possibly breed thylacine for specimens then surely the skeletons and skins would have also been preserved. There are no thylacine skins or skeletons in MacKenzie’s collection. MacKenzie labelled his specimens with the species name and organ type and occasionally the sex of the specimen. There are no records of the source or the date the specimens were obtained. That said, I am confident that all of MacKenzie’s specimens were sourced from Melbourne zoo stock.

David Fleay who in 1937 became the first paid director of Healesville would have had access to MacKenzie’s records for the sanctuary and knowing of his interest in the species would undoubtedly have made reference to thylacine being kept at the sanctuary if this had indeed been the case. David Fleay had intended to capture and return a breeding pair of thylacine to Healesville following his expedition to Tasmania in 1945/1946. Despite his dedicated efforts to save the species his expedition returned to Healesville empty handed.

MacKenzie’s thylacine specimens were photographed in their entirety for the first time for inclusion in the International Thylacine Specimen Database [ITSD]. The collection contains a total of 34 thylacine specimens preserved in alcohol. All but one of the specimens are organs and these are now preserved in the collection of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra
" (Sleightholme, 2006)

Dr Stephen Sleightholme
Project Director [UK]
International Thylacine Specimen Database [ITSD]

To be fair to Ms Hynes, I'd like to add that her ideas were presented to me as that exactly - a set of ideas requiring further research.

By all means, if anyone has further information - or alternative theories on whether the thylacine was ever released on the mainland, or if you know a thylacine sighting story which has not yet been reported, feel free to contact WLMD.

Further information about the International Thylacine Specimen Database is available at the online Thylacine Museum

Hynes' ideas, originally published a few days ago, follow...

A fresh look at the circumstances
The prospect of thylacines having been released on the mainland before their extinction in 1936 is an intriguing and attractive one. It is intriguing because the means by which such a release might have occurred are cloaked in as much conspiracy as a mystery novel, and attractive because - as many authors have noted - discovering the thylacine alive today would do much to ease the pain searing our collective conscience for allowing, or even pursuing, the thylacine into extinction.

Speculation abounds about a supposed "Thylacine Preservation Society" which is said to have procured and released a number of thylacines on the mainland - most probably on Wilson's Promontory. Believers in modern day mainland thylacine sightings theorise that from Wilson's Prom, thylacines had a short easy trek north into broader, if not greener pastures; a trek which in the early 1900s would have been far easier than crossing today's myriad of farming fields.

Opinions are divided on whether any such society existed, and even if so, how they could have accomplished the feat with minimal detection and leaving no record of their act.

However, Debbie Hynes of thylacoleo.com has taken a fresh look at the available facts and put together a new theory on how thylacines may have reached the mainland.

My gratitude to Debbie for allowing me to publish this theory here. Please note that whilst the information presented here is not referenced, most - if not all - of the information is in the public domain. However, I welcome any feedback which may substantiate, or challange the ideas presented below.

A few of my own comments are [included in square brackets, below].

The theory
The theory begins with the prospect of Tasmanian devils living on the mainland. In respect of these, there are three schools of thought: that there aren't any, that there are a few relicts surviving past their mainland "extinction" of a few hundred years ago, and that there are mainland devils which were imported from Tasmania.

[As a side note, I have a number of sources reporting that of the five mainland devils specimens in museum collections, those which had DNA analysed proved to be of the same stock as current Tasmanian populations. This may lend support to the idea that they were imported from there.]

Healesville Sanctuary became The Sanctuary in about 1934, but it had been a native wildlife and breeding station since at least 1919, morphing into a private zoo by the mid 1920s.

In the 19th century the hills around the area which became Healesville, especially around Mt Riddell, were set aside as a reserve for Aboriginal people. The reserve was called Coranderrk.

At that time there was a medical doctor named Colin MacKenzie. He worked at the Children's Hospital in Melbourne in the early 1910s and was involved in the treatment of polio, then called "infantile paralysis". Polio damages nerves which paralyses muscles and MacKenzie felt that treatment might be found through studying the evolution of muscular development. Viruses had not yet been properly described.

Having the idea that studying Australian marsupials might help, in 1919 he set up the Australian Institute of Anatomical Research and leased land in the Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve, including 78 acres on Badger Creek - the location of the present day Sanctuary.

Enclosures were built in order to breed native animals and breeding was successful. Taxidermists were employed to kill animals and prepare skeletons, and by 1924 there was a collection of ten thousand anatomical specimens. [Note: the correct figure may be two thousand - to be verified] In 1924 the entire collection was donated to the Australian Nation and the specimens, together with the Institute itself, moved to the newly formed national capital, Canberra.

The sanctuary lived on as a private zoo run by the Shire council until post World War 2. Though a commercial enterprise, money was tight, staff lacking and the enclosures very primitive - to the point of using chicken wire and rough-cut timber from local trees.

In 1934 Badger Creek flooded and most of the Sanctuary was destroyed. Enclosures were washed away. The Shire Gazette reported that the Sanctuary's "kangaroos and emus are now at large in the bush".

[As another aside, one contributor to the discussion had this to say about the flood: "That would be the Coramba Day flood of 30 November 1934. My father, who was born in 1916, remembers it as by far the most severe weather conditions he ever experienced. There had been something like 11 inches of rain over the previous few days, then when the gale force winds increased in intensity he watched as one by one the pine trees around the old homestead were ripped out of the sodden ground.

The steamship Coramba was heading from Warrnambool to Melbourne when it was caught in the storm and is believed to have foundered at anchor, somewhere to the southwest of Pyramid Rock. All seventeen hands were lost.

So the scenario of various fauna escaping from the Sanctuary sounds very plausible. If the miserable critters didnt drown in their cages, falling trees and limbs could have demolished fences and allowed all sorts of animals to run wild.

Although the Gazette did not mention Tasmanian devils, that species was exhibited from the time of the Sanctuary's inception. A 1920s photograph of a devil in a concrete pen survives to this day.

Whilst the flood itself may give credence to the possibility that Tasmanian devils were released into the bush, it is also possible in light of the primitive facilities, that devils were intermitently released (ie escaped) over anywhere up to 30 years between the early 1920s and late 1940s.

Hynes then refers to Campbell (at the online Thylacine Museum) who writes "MacKenzie's focus on the anatomical attributes of his specimens reduced their value from a zoological perspective as he failed to keep detailed records for each specimen, only labelling them with a brief description of the organ preserved and the common name of the animal"

and "Sir Colin MacKenzie (1837-1938) accumulated for the purpose of research the largest single collection of wet thylacine specimens in existence. Wet specimens are whole animals, organs or body parts preserved in either alcohol or formalin".

The obvious conclusion being that thylacines did come into the MacKenzie collection. Given that the collection left his hands in 1924, it is inferred that the thylacine specimens came into his possession between 1919 and 1924. Hynes quotes Campbell again, who writes that:

"In 1924 he (MacKenzie) wrote:
'Unfortunately these animals are fast disappearing, and, in less than twenty years it is computed, will, in the absence of rigid protective measures, be all extinct.'

which is quite a pertinent statement from someone with thylacine specimens in his possession.

With thylacines still being available for export in the 1910s and 1920s, and MacKenzie being a wealthy man, Hynes sums up with the following:

"Is it reasonable to imagine that ... thylacines ... were deliberately released by him, presumably somewhere near Coranderrk? ...

As far as I can tell, Sir Colin was the one man who, uniquely, had the knowledge, the means, the motive and the opportunity to save the Thylacine. What if the wonderful Healesville Sanctuary were not his only legacy?

Interesting coincidences
Further, as Dr Paddle discovered, Melbourne Zoo did in fact succeed in breeding the thylacine in 1899. Four pups were produced, one of which entered the museum's collection after dying 22 months later. What became of the other three?

It appears that thylacines could not, did not or chose not to breed with close relatives, however, enclosing unrelated males and females resulted in the successful breeding. Could MacKenzie have known of this in 1919? Quite possibly given that the Coranderrk research station was in part intended for marsupial breeding.

Also interesting, during the 1930s there was an enterprising animal photographer who became curator of mammals at Melbourne Zoo - David Fleay - the man who took the famous photo of the enormous gape of a thylacine's jaws. MacKenzie died in 1938, and in about 1941, after a falling out at Melbourne Zoo, Fleay became director of... Healesville Sanctuary.

The core to the theory then, is that given thylacines were present in MacKenzie's original collection, they must have been prepared between 1919 and 1924.

Coranderrk was MacKenzie's only preparation facility therefore thylacines must have been present there during those years.

Whether he received them as live specimens is open to question, bearing in mind that a dual purpose of the location was to initiate marsupial breeding programs.

MacKenzie himself was concerned with the looming extinction of the thylacine and there are still three captive-bred pups from the Melbourne Zoo which remain unaccounted for.

The facilities at Coranderrk were primitive and it is likely that any number of marsupials escaped the enclosures.

Sleightholme, S. 2006 Personal communication (18/11/2006)

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