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Why Hyenas?

Last week I finally created my hyena t-shirt kickstarter, with a set goal of £200 which would pay for the production of a limited number of screen printed shirts. I didn’t anticipate how successful the kickstarter would be. Unfortunately hyenas still suffer from a bad reputation so it was hard to gage what the response to the campaign.

The t-shirts are going to be part of a collection of merchandise that directly benefits the hyena project who research spotted hyena clans within the Ngorongoro crater. Last year I was enamoured by their work and I wanted to do my bit to support them. I was pleasantly surprised by the help and generosity that I received from the researchers. Oliver Honer was quick to respond to emails, gave me resources and actively shared his extensive knowledge on spotted hyenas.

Firstly I started to illustrate a couple of their resident hyenas, my goal was to create a new portfolio to show publishers so I could push for an art book that centres around spotted hyena anatomy. However, what started as a small project soon turned into a burning, lifelong and infectious passion for spotted hyenas and the collective hyaenidae.

#woopcackle on Twitter was born and every week I found myself researching hyenas and sharing little facts that would inspire people to change their negative perspective on these intelligent creatures. I’ve been very fortunate to have help, direct inspiration and photographs from Arjun Dheer and Sam Williams. Who are both hard working field scientists and know hyenas back to front.

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Spotted hyena photograph by Sam Williams

Unfortunately, I’m yet to experience hyenas in the wild, but thanks to the collective help and resources given to me by researchers. I’m able to produce artwork and scientific communication programs that are as faithful as possible to hyaenidae. But that doesn’t mean that I’m without any primary hyena resources of my own. I’m very privileged to be the caretaker of one of the first hyenas that the hyena project studied in 1996. He was named Askari and unfortunately met his end either being gored by a buffalo or wildebeest. (My money is on buffalo…)

His skull is the only thing that remains, but he’s taken the most prominent position on my desk as a constant reminder to do these animals justice. I also have numerous hyena papers, a fossil hyena tooth from Tornewton, Kruuk’s spotted hyena behaviour book, anatomical models and paw casts. Most of these were given/donated to me and I feel extremely humbled and privileged to have them.

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Askari the hyena with my rooibos tea rations, a kind gift from Sam Williams

After selling prints of the hyena project study animals. I wanted to push for more merchandise such as: shirts, soft toys, beer labels and bags, all will benefit the hyena project. The majority of these are now in production, it appears that hyenas are starting to get a little taste of the limelight. As I write this, I know that there is a lot of work yet to do and I have come to realisation that it will take over my life.

My hyena shirt kickstarter is currently surpassing £1,000, this has given me hope that my small impact can make a large difference and hopefully we shall see the results in the not too distant future.

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Hyena project t-shirt concept design

But why hyenas?

To me, there is no animal more deserving of human kindness. They are a mirror of ourselves. This can inspirit humans to despise hyenas, they compete directly with us and have done this for the majority of our evolution. But if we cannot love and respect ourselves, how can you love somebody else? (RuPaul inspired)

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Experimental Ceramics

Working with clay is something that I’ve always enjoyed. I predominantly work in pencil, however, I’ve decided spread my roots and experiment with ceramics. I have a huge passion for the process, in which art is formed and creating artwork that reflects the natural world. So it’s no surprise that recreating Palaeolithic and Neolithic ceramics, using traditional methods and techniques deeply appealed to me.

Whilst visiting Butser Ancient Farm on holiday, I was flooded with inspiration and a desire to create art that reflected a familiar but distant ancient world. Experimental archaeology, is a process in which, traditional methods are tested and recreated. The earliest-known ceramic objects are Gravettian figurines such as those discovered at Dolní Věstonice in the modern-day Czech Republic. The Venus of Dolní Věstonice is a Venus figurine, a statuette of a female figure, dated to 29,000–25,000 BC. These Venus figures provided the inital inspiration for this project.

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The Venus of Dolní Věstonice, Petr Novák, Wikipedia

I knew exactly what I wanted to do; I intended to dig up my own clay, process it, sculpt it and once it dries, create my own fire pit to wood-fire the ceramics. This of which, would have been the same method used by Palaeolithic and Neolithic people. After watching numerous videos on YouTube, to refresh myself with the process of finding and working with hand dug clays. I was ready to go out into the wild and find a natural deposit.

One problem, the geology in my area isn’t ‘clay friendly’, lots of bedrock, to put it simply. I wasn’t about to give up, I knew from fuzzy childhood memories, that clay does exist in Derbyshire, I just need to find the right place. I googled ‘clays in Derbyshire’ and an interesting paper from 1923 turned up titled ‘The toadstone-clays of Derbyshire’. It turns out that we do have clay! however, it’s formed differently via a unique weathering process of local igneous rock (composed of olivine dolerites). If this interests you further, click on the caption below and it will direct you to the relevant paper.

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The ‘toadstone-clays’ of Derbyshire, www.minersoc.org

I decided to get up early the next morning, I wanted to start work as soon as possible. There are many local brooks, rivers and streams to search for a suitable deposit. I recalled within my memory, a bank that had been disturbed by the local cows, that was my first target to explore. I knew that I had to get the job done quickly, a lot of people dog walk in the morning and seeing a young woman digging into the landscape, may raise a few suspicious eyebrows.

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The young bullocks were distracted, happily eating the valley grasses laden with morning dew, the bank that I wanted to locate was in the next field. I decided that I needed to start searching now, before their bovine curiosity overpowered their need to fill their bellies.

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So close, but yet, so far…this is the bank that I wanted to excavate from. However, due to a few rebel cows escaping last year, it seems that the farmer took extra precautions this time. I tried to get a good view, it certainly looked like clay. At this point, I believed that the next logical step would be to follow the brook and see if I could find another eroded deposit.

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The brook was depleted from the long heat wave this summer, this allowed me to cross to the other side with ease. I traversed the rough terrain and ankle splitting river rocks, keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of erosion, exposing the treasure that I desired.

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The sunlight marks the spot, as I made my way up the brook the banks were becoming increasingly eroded. After decades of battering, the brook had cut deep into the earth, a familiar yellowy substance was starting to emerge. After a little deliberation, I decided that this particular site, was a too ‘rocky’ to successfully excavate from. With that in mind, I carried on, I knew what the perfect site would look like in my mind’s eye.

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Success! Hidden away inside a little nook, under a leaning alder tree, was the perfect clay excavation site. I was forced to bend over, after laying down my backpack, I hunkered down and perched on top of a rock, I inspected the quality of the clay. My fingers sunk deep into the cold earth with the brook lapping over my skin, it was a surprisingly comfortable cool sensation. I decided to take a moment to soak in the atmosphere, I could hear buzzards screeching above and below small spiders, were weaving silken webs in-between the ferns that bordered the brook. The whole process of searching for the clay; finding it and excavating it drew me closer to nature. I knew within that moment, it would not stretch the imagination too far, to view this as something spiritual. Especially to the ancient Europeans who depended on this land to survive.

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The clay itself was hard to excavate, my back ached from digging and it took all of my strength to release it from the earth, leaving me exasperated and with a deep need for coffee. A note to those that want to try this at home; not all clays are suitable for sculpture or pottery. The best way to test clay quality, is to roll it in your hand and then into a sausage shape. If the clay can do this without cracking, falling apart or drying up, you have clay that’s suitable to work with.

Once I gathered enough clay, I heaved my prize back home and I began processing it into a workable material. Hand dug clay, almost always contains small stones and vegetation. The best way to rid the clay of this material, is to turn the clay into a slip, by saturating it with water and sieving out these inclusions. Once the clay hardens over night you can start your projects.

Before I started sculpting, I wedged and kneaded the clay, this rids the clay of any air bubbles that could potentially cause the ceramic to crack or explode when they’re fired. For hand dug clays it also makes the clay pliable, therefore, easier to sculpt and mould. As I finished kneading my clay, a thought occurred me. It’s also required to create a ‘grog’ to mix into the clay. A clay grog in it’s basic form; is smashed fired ceramic, it strengthens the clay and helps it to expand during the firing process. I quickly made short work of an old broken terracotta flower pot. Finally I had my clay; hand dug, processed, rolled and ready to turn into whatever my imagination desired.

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After many hours of sculpting the clay, with traditional tools such as antler tips and bird feathers, my Venus sculpture started to take shape. My initial intention was to create a faithful replica. My opinion soon changed, I thought that the most authentic result would be something from my imagination. Allowing the sculpture to sculpt itself organically rather than a copy, that would restrict the natural art process. If I wanted to get inside the mind’s of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic artists, I needed to let go of the reins.

There is a common hypothesis amongst archaeologists, that many of the early Venus figures are self portraits created by women. I took on this idea as a starting point and began to sculpt a shape that roughly resembled my body.

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Hours turned into days, as I carefully sculpted my vision, features started to appear and she eventually took form. As I etched and smoothed the details with bird feathers, the process became very therapeutic, it was just me and the clay. When etching in the final detail, she sat there looking very lonely, in her leaning pose that she naturally acquired over time. With this, I took a small ball of scrap clay and she soon had the company of a little ram to lean on.

I’m very pleased with the final product that I’ve created, but the most difficult stage is yet to come. She’ll dry for the next two weeks, once I’m confident, I will attempt to fire her and the ram in a wood fire pit. Unlike conventional kilns the temperature is not controlled, despite every effort to stop cracking, there is still a large risk. I shall compose another blog entry detailing my efforts.

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The Problem With Hyena Queens

Matriarchal 

1. adjective

A matriarchal society, family, or system is one in which the rulers are female and power or property is passed from mother to daughter.

2. graded adjective
A matriarchal family or group is one in which women are more powerful or important than men.
Above is the dictionary definition of ‘matriarchal’. Usually referring to human and animal groups that are dominated by the female sex. For many years spotted hyenas were seen as a matriarchal animal, the archetype of absolute female dominance. With the ‘pathetic’ male hyenas right at the bottom of the heap. Having dominance over nothing, with a high risk of dying at the hands of siblicide and bowing down to any female that crosses his path. To top it all off, the females have genitalia that resembles a male’s penis and scrotum.
This idea has proved to be popular with scientists, science communicators and feminist bloggers alike. Many references to spotted hyena social heirarchy have presented themselves in popular media and scientific YouTube videos aimed at a wide range of audiences.
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‘Why It Sucks to Be a Male Hyena’ MinuteEarth’s YouTube video on hyena matriarchy

So, what’s the issue?

It’s incorrect and does not reflect up to date research on hyena society.

In fact, the matriarchy theory was denounced in 2002. Following from this, further research from institutions like the Hyena Project in Tanzania. Revealed that spotted hyena society was far more complex than female > male. With thanks to modern technology and improved fieldwork techniques the intricacy of a spotted hyena’s life began to show itself.

How does spotted hyena hierarchy actually work?

Female hyenas pass on their status to their offspring regardless of sex. Status is still maternal, but that does not make hyenas a matriarchal society. A male hyena will have dominance over any female that is below his mother’s rank. Interestingly, this dynamic is eerily similar to some primates.

If there’s a male and female sibling, the female will not kill the male. Ritualistic sparring among hyena siblings is common to establish internal dominance. However, siblicide is uncommon and in some populations sparingly documented. The female sibling will often assert dominance over the male, but there are exceptions and it’s not a strict social rule.

Adult Male Hyenas

When a male hyena reaches maturity he has a choice to either depart his birth clan and sacrifice his birth rank or stay put. This largely depends on available mates and other resources.

However, for the mature males that stay within their clan they have the luxury of keeping their rank. Incidentally, if a mature male is the son of the lead female and she dies, he will take her crown and run the clan as the dominant leader. Several cases of this occurrence has been documented and recorded in the wild.

For immigrant males life is certainly tougher, once established in a new clan, he has to work his way up the clan hierarchy. If the immigrant proves to be worthy and popular with the established clan members, this will raise his status amongst the clan. Immigrant males usually only increase in social rank when higher ranking males leave the clan or die, and they will always remain below all native clan members

Adult Female Hyenas

Unlike males, female hyenas rarely leave their birth-clans. This is the reason why hierarchal clan status is passed on maternally and why females commonly hold high ranks within a clan. There have been documented cases of females moving clans, usually this has been due to her birth-clan breaking up and other related issues that cause intense clan instability.

Hyenas Lack Sexual Dimorphism

Firstly, what is sexual dimorphism? Sexual dimorphism, in the most basic of definitions is a condition where the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs. This includes differences in size, colour, markings and secondary sex characteristics. Secondary sex characteristics are changes that occur when an animal reaches maturity (or puberty for humans). For example, mane development in lions or antler growth in deer species, with males in their prime exhibiting the most impressive set of antlers.

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Interestingly hyenas don’t exhibit traits of sexual dimorphism. It’s often assumed that female hyenas by default, are ‘larger’ in size to their male counterparts. But this isn’t entirely true, whilst clan females will generally exhibit a better body condition/weight to immigrant males, due to prime access to food and resources from her clan. Hyenas are extremely variable and come in all shapes and sizes. Sexing hyenas in the wild can be a difficult task, with researchers often relying on the shape of a hyena’s genitalia.

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The Pseudo-penis

One of the most interesting and compelling characteristics of a female spotted hyena is her enlarged clitoris or pseudo-penis. This unique trait has caused many myths to surround the spotted hyena, from changing sex at will, to being natural hermaphrodites. In truth, the pseudo-penis has all the components of typical female genitalia. In order to mate, a female hyena needs to distend her clitoris to allow the male access. She also gives birth through her enlarged clitoris, which can result in death and commonly tears the clitorial tissue. Ouch!

Hyena researches aren’t entirely sure why female spotted hyenas evolved this unique form of genitalia. Many theories have sprouted up over the years, from anti-rape device to male mimickry. What we know for sure, is that females play the deciding role when it comes to breeding and both sexes have to rely on each other to make breeding successful. Hyena females often choose to mate with hyenas that they have formed a close bond with. Males will ‘shadow’ females during courtship, some will often follow a specific female for several weeks to attempt to gain her favour.

There’s conflicting research as to wether females prefer immigrant males over clan-born males. The Hyena Project (Tanzania) argues, that females prefer males that have immigrated into their clan after they (the females) were born, or (in the case of clan-born males) males that were born after they (the females) were born. Thus, their mate choice rules are based on male tenure and not immigration.

If you want to read more on ‘male hyena tenure’ I have linked the research and detailed arguments in the ‘further research’ section.

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A male hyena courting a female, filmed by the Hyena Project. Click on the image to watch on YouTube.

In Conclusion

Spotted hyena society is not matriarchal nor completely female dominated. We have touched on explanations and new research illustrating why hyena society is more complex than this popular theory. Similar to the outdated ‘alpha and omega’ hierarchy regarding wolves, we need to start looking at spotted hyena societies and how they function in light of new research.

But don’t let this put you off spotted hyenas, these are social, intelligent animals that deserve our respect. I can certainly take my hat off to the female hyenas that have to give birth through their clitoris.

I can understand why it might be hard for some people to ‘let go’ of this theory. A possible reason for sticking to female hyena dominance theories, may take root in modern politics. The idea of a female animal being dominant, can be alluring to humans who suffer from human social issues. But we shouldn’t look to animals for female/human empowerment. There are many people that have fought hard or are actively fighting for equality. Perhaps, we should look to these humans for inspiration and let spotted hyenas be themselves.

Further Research:

 

The Thylacine: 81 Years On

On this day in 1936, the last captive thylacine, humbly known as “Benjamin” passed away from exposure to the elements, caused from being locked out of their enclosure. The remains of this once gracious animal were then disposed of in the bin. Usually, when icons representing the last of their kind die they are preserved, however, this was not the case with Ben. So little was understood about the condition of populations of the thylacine in the wild that the true impact of this event was not properly recognized until months later when no more wild thylacines were captured, seen or documented. It was a sad, undignified end to a controversial but charismatic animal that now has a pedestal in our hearts and imaginations.

The thylacine as a species is still making an impact long after its extinction, in fact, just yesterday primary to the thylacine 81st extinction anniversary. More, grainy footage was produced by keen amateurs wanting to prove once and for all that the thylacine still exists…I am yet to be convinced. I believe that until the end of time, people will stalk the silent forests chasing after the ghosts of these long dead creatures. Unlike other extinctions, even the most hardened of skeptics will find it hard to let the thylacine truly go. I believe, that this is down to how the extinction was orchestrated, it was quick and clean which left us with many unanswered questions about the thylacine. Despite my own reservations, my imagination runs with me and with every footage still, every scat sample and every photograph I wish that I could be proved wrong…that one day we find proof that thylacines did against all the odds, both environmentally, biologically and socially made it through to our modern world.

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(“Ben” photography by David Fleay)

The #thylastream will also soon come to a one year anniversary! Of which I will be celebrating with more thylacine events, art, and photographs. I created the thylastream because I wanted to use social media to educate, share a history of the thylacine. As well as, install inspiration back into people without the facts presented being too heavy but in manageable bite-sized chunks. It has been so rewarding to see it still be successful today and being used as a free educational resource worldwide. I have learned a lot in the past year, especially towards social media management so I wish to expand my knowledge and improve the #thylastream for future audiences. Which will include an accessible database with all of the photographs and educational resources that I have collected.

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(Abstract thylacine artwork created by myself)

Thylacines have opened many doors in my life and I owe it to the species to carry on educating, creating and sharing. I have my presentation at Tetzoocon2017 on October 21st which will include new thylacine themed artwork that I have been rigorously creating and keeping a firm secret until now. There is much yet to look forward to!

I will end this short but sweet blog post on the fact that, the thylacine will forever remain in my heart and today the 7th of September 2017 I will remember them and pledge to continue using them within my career of scientific communication.

 

To Catch A Ghost: Is The Thylacine Still Alive?

Another big question that I get asked when producing content for the #thylastream events on Twitter is this “Do thylacines still exist?”. Despite the thylacines official status as being extinct, many people still cling to the hope that somewhere out in the Tasmanian/Australian bush the thylacine still prowls. Only captured on grainy film and photo, slinking off into night shadowed forests and roadside undergrowth apparently learning from their previous mistakes of trusting and going near people.

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(Thylacine Bronx Zoo)

Firstly, we have to look at the possible human reason behind the thylacines new residence as a cryptid alongside mythical beings such as Big Foot. Despite the thylacine being a real life animal, back in the early 19th-century thylacines were seen as mundane and bland even by most scientists. They were a “prehistoric relic”, something that should have died out along with the mammoths. Sheep farmers feared them, cross compared them to wolves and they were outright scapegoated into the frame as a vampire, a blood-sucking menace and sheep killer. They weren’t liked very much.

Fast forward to the 1950s, many years after the last wild thylacine was captured and Ben’s death in 1936. Suddenly thylacines gained notoriety, they became mysterious, a symbol for Tasmania’s/Australia’s untamed wilderness. When humanity suddenly cannot have something we long for it with the deepest of passions, we desire it and we romanticize it. People found it suddenly hard to believe that the thylacine was truly gone, a coping mechanism was perhaps, the primary reason why the thylacine became a majestic cryptid.

Ol’Stripey now sits on a pedestal alongside the mythical beasts that reside in our imaginations and cultures. The impossible dream of an animal that had once existed, and still exists in the living memory of our species. Gone. But are they?

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(Hunter poses with dead thylacine, 1869. Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.)

Go anywhere in Tasmania today, and you are bound to see a thylacine. The thylacine image is on their coat of arms, on beer labels, on signs for bars/hotels. You would also hear stories of thylacine sightings by a number of sources and different walks of life. Hushed murmurs of a thylacine catching someone’s eye or slinking off into the night disappearing from their view.

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(Suspected “thylacine” film still, shot at a farm by a woman southwest Victoria in 2008.) 

Most skeptics will not give these stories a second chance. The thylacine has been absent for more than one hundred years, no DNA evidence and no decent photographs (despite accessible high definition camera equipment) has surfaced. The stories from mainland Australia are even more outlandish, as the thylacine was deemed extinct long before Western settlers arrived. Many grainy photos and films show what appear to be red foxes suffering from mange and feral dogs. This I shall further explain…

All of the footage and photographs that I have reviewed over the years show me no thylacines just mistaken identity. To begin with stark differences, I shall review how the thylacine moved. The thylacine gait was highly distinct and very different from modern canids. Unlike a dog, it’s hind legs were longer than its front limbs. This made the highest point of its pelvis slightly higher than its shoulders. Overall thylacine limbs were comparatively shorter than any equally sized dog.  This together with its stiff tail which it held out behind in a rigid fashion, made its movements quite different from any canine. It had what looked to us like an awkward walk and a weird ungainly trot.

This intimate knowledge of thylacine anatomy is often gleaned over by most when they capture a “thylacine” on film or photo. Another mistaken identity point is a disease quite prevalent in foxes, dogs and other wildlife called “Mange” caused by skin parasites namely mites. Without going into too much detail, it’s a nasty infectious disease that causes the fur to fall out and animals to lose large amounts of weight as they slowly die from it. Mange can severely alter the appearance of what is usually a recognizable species such as a red fox, pair this with bad lighting, a poor quality film and bad equipment…then you just might have yourself a “thylacine”.

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(Fox with a severe case of mange, source unknown.)

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(Thylacine/Mange infected Fox “thylacine” footage comparison, source “Thylacine? No! Mangy Fox? Yes!” by WDGHK on DeviantArt)

Even though fox populations are not confirmed in Tasmania. Foxes certainly exist in many parts of mainland Australia, so I can safely say that film/photo taken on the mainland is mostly related to mangy foxes. Considering that feral dogs and other animals from Tasmania can suffer from mange, it is not impossible to assume that most accounts could be linked to mistaken identity thanks to mange distorting our view of what should be recognizable animals.

As for countless eyewitness accounts, expert witnesses and people’s stories. They are merely just that. No meat on the bone to further prove the thylacine’s existence. Frustratingly a story/eyewitness account is only as accountable as the word itself, which to me simply isn’t enough. Even the most skilled of bushmen and scientists can convince themselves of seeing something that they want to see. Example “What is that?”, “Is that a thylacine?”,”I think it is a thylacine!” and then finally “I know it was a thylacine”.

Regardless of this people will still cling to the idea that the thylacine exists, even though time and time again footage and photos have been declared as a false identity or a blatant fake, alleged sightings turn up nothing and the forests remain silent of the famed and very loud thylacine mating calls. But one day I would love to be proved wrong. All I want is a high definition photograph of a thylacine, a confirmed scat sample, modern bones found in the bush, DNA evidence! When I visit Tasmania next year I do plan to go hunting for thylacines. But I do firmly believe that we are simply chasing ghosts, led on by the fact that we just cannot believe that they thylacine is truly gone.

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(Sunbathing thylacines source/date unknown.)

 

Cloning Ol’Stripey (Thylacine)

The most frequent question that I get during the #thylastream events on Twitter, is something similar to this, “But can’t we just clone the thylacine?”. It’s a hard question to answer in the very few characters that Twitter provides, so please let me explain in this blog post. I will try to keep it simple, even though the very concept of cloning is complex and can be a subject that I could write about for hours on end. But I will try to condense this.

“Can we successfully clone the thylacine?”

In theory: Probably

In reality: No

Firstly, cloning is not a “get out of jail” card in regards to extinction. It’s not as simple as bashing genetic codes together and then ending up with a fully functioning animal at the end of it. It’s been plugged by the media as a “cure-all” our one last hope of seeing a thylacine alive. Sadly nothing is ever this simple, and even though we have plenty of perfectly preserved thylacine specimens, DNA even over one hundred years is highly fragmented, degraded and contaminated with other traces of alien DNA through years of handling and storage. Basically, it’s as if we had the thylacine jigsaw puzzle, but then someone chucked the pieces on the floor, took some pieces away and put other pieces from other puzzles in there with it…for good measure. It will take billions of dollars, thousands of hours to even start to put it together and that’s to say if there is enough original DNA left in the first place to successfully clone from.

Another hurdle for the thylacine cloning is that thylacines don’t have any close living relatives, as well as becoming extinct they took a whole lineage down with them. They only have distant relations in the Tasmanian devil and Numbat but those relations are so distant it would be comparable to using a Lemur as a surrogate mother for a human being. Gestation timing/differences between species would be extremely difficult to calculate due to our lack of knowledge on thylacine biology, the pouches of a Tasmanian devil or Numbat will not be able to conceal a thylacine pouch young for long enough and of course, you have the blatant issue of logistics.

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But let’s imagine that we somehow made it through to the cloned thylacine reaching adulthood. Despite the downfalls with contaminated/fragmented DNA, lack of an appropriate surrogate mother and of course, fabled super aging of clones and clones suffering from disease/illness due to poor immune systems. We have one alive and well.

Firstly, this animal is going to be worth billions of dollars, and we plonk it in some sort of highly secure exhibit with a bodyguard for us to ogle at. It looks like a thylacine, it moves like a thylacine but is it a thylacine as we once knew them? No. Whenever we think of cloning, we like to imagine that we are bringing back an animal that is exactly the same as the original. Genetically speaking we have a carbon copy of the original, but it’s not all there. Our cloned billion dollar lab pet will have the same instinctual behavior, but we severely downplay the nurture aspect of any social carnivore when we talk about cloning. Nurture V instinct is a debate for another day, but on the subject of thylacines, they heavily relied on it. In my formal opinion, some animals are more led by nurture than instinct and visa verso.

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(Thylacine taxidermy mount at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)

We know from historical accounts that thylacines were highly social animals, they stayed within family groups, hunted as these groups and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that they learned a lot about how to be a thylacine from this social structure. They would learn how to hunt properly and how to communicate by taking social cues from their parents. Unfortunately for our clone, it will have no idea how to do these things and it will simply just exist to look like a thylacine or develop different behaviors due to being so closely linked to humans. We know very little about thylacine behavior so even we wouldn’t be able to work around this issue.

All we have is a thylacine shell. So is it really worth it? Is the question that we should be asking ourselves. Cloning is good in concept, as well as trying to understand thylacine DNA because it can help to further our understanding of thylacine genetics. But in regards to bringing the thylacine back from extinction, it is an impossible dream.

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(Thylacine exhibit at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)

We all need to come to terms with the fact that the thylacine won’t be coming back. If billionaires somehow manage to clone one, it won’t be a thylacine. We lost the thylacine on September 7th, 1936 and there is no “get out of jail” card for that. But what we can do is learn a valuable lesson from this, these feelings and thoughts that you have about never being able to see a live thylacine, are what the next generations will feel when they find more species on this planet are gone.

Think about it.

 

 

Private Bone/Taxidermy Collection: The Good, The Bad and The Illegal

This blog has taken a while to write. It’s a complicated subject that can be hard to condense into a simple blog post. However, I feel that it is now necessary to write about it due to growing, worrying, illegal, and unethical trends that are resurfacing due to a private natural history collection resurgence in recent years. Aside from this, I am aware of the positive aspects of private collections and therefore I do not want to come across as too preachy or completely ridicule those with private collections who work extremely hard to promote conservation and education. But I feel that some things now need to be said, as well as how these new problems need to be fixed with realistic solutions.

I am writing this from both sides of the coin, I have been collecting skulls/skeletons since childhood, and I work for the museum industry/science communication as a formal job. Back then I never purchased anything, everything was naturally found in the countryside. Needless to say, it was one of the elements that planted the seed that inspired my curiosity for the natural world and biology. I’m sure that the same can be said for many other scientists and artists. Many of which, have used their personal collections to directly educate others and actively promote the conservation of the natural world such as; Ric Morris, Jakes Bones, Paolo Viscardi, Ben Garrod to name a mere few.

Firstly, we need to understand why people collect taxidermy, bones, skulls, and skeletons in the first place. Humans have been collecting things since the beginning of time. We are a curious species and this is a way to directly connect and to understand the world around us. I feel that this is still the main element for those merely collecting for personal reasons, it’s a way for someone to connect directly to a particular animal. It’s also a safe way to connect to an animal who would in life…probably kill you. There are other elements, such as exploiting wealth, showing off and simply having something that is out of reach to someone else.

As much as collecting modern animal specimens privately can be positive, it can also be problematic and negatively impact the natural fauna/flora indirectly. This, unfortunately, prompted me to write this post.

In recent years a new trend/sub-culture called “Vulture Culture” took off in younger generations. No more was taxidermy/natural history collection exclusive to the gloating rooms of old men and rich aristocrats. Teenagers and young adults now had a hold over the market, taking to social media spaces such as Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook to show off their collections and processing methods. In a way we can rejoice, the natural world and biology suddenly became trendy and with that will come people willing to conserve the natural environment and will have the burning passion for pursuing research to better our understanding. But…

With the positives must come negatives. Bones, skulls, and skeletons have to come from somewhere and that is from what was once a living being. For some members of the Vulture Culture craze, they took to processing roadkill and other bodies naturally found in the wild. Luckily local wildlife law is fairly easy to access for the average member of the public, and soon understanding of dead animal body collection took off. What I’ve found is that these people who find their own animals to process from corpse to collection rarely have an issue with the local law department. Most disputes are often easily solved, and wildlife law officers seem to keep tabs.

But what if you want something more exotic? What if a dead deer just won’t do it for you. The answer to this problem would be online auction sites such as Ebay, and soon people started to pay large sums of money for rarer items that you probably wouldn’t find bumbling around the British countryside. Lion skulls, wolf skulls, pickled lemur and lion claws ripped off from a vintage 19th-century taxidermy skin, the possibilities I’ve seen really have been endless. But unfortunately, money is problematic, once you pay for something you give it a monetary value, therefore you open up a potential market/trade. What was once just a Lion skull, for example, is now an item worth up to £500. You may not see the £500 as it’s main value, but anyone who wants quick and easy cash will.

The illegal wildlife trade and the unethical wildlife trade is still a growing problem and the negative side of vulture culture and other similar trends are that consumers, directly and indirectly, cause these problems…you don’t even have to break the law to cause them. Because of recent trends, I have seen more online and physical shops open up across Britain promising people the dead wildlife item of their dreams. Want a cheetah skin, we got it! Want a snarling tiger head we got that too! A lot of these sellers boast ethical collection and law abiding care, however, how can the general public tell when a seller is lying or telling the truth? The truth is they can’t. Wildlife law on exotic species can be complicated and a lot of the laws are not written in lay language. In fact, there are many debates among vulture culture members/collectors on what the law actually is, and even someone who truly tries to find an answer cannot as it’s stuck in a legal quagmire. I want to avoid going into individual laws and loopholes (that’s a blog post for another day), this blog post is here to raise awareness for what I see to be growing problems.

What I think may be one of the solutions to the problem, is if a rough lay-guide is published every year by dedicated a wildlife law rep. Stating what paperwork may be required for what, what species are a total no-no for private ownership, what are antique wildlife item laws, what questions you should be asking and how to spot an illegal wildlife trader on online auction sites. I feel that internationally this will be a great benefit, I do strongly feel that most members of vulture culture and private collectors do try to abide by the law where possible. There are few who willingly go against it. However, all consumers good or bad drive this market. Once an illegal/unethical item is purchased that money has been exchanged intentionally or not and therefore fueling the market and trade.

Case in point:

What made me finally publish this blog is a previously convicted seller recently targeted vulture culture members (mostly young people) selling brown hyena skulls. He has promised more hyena skulls and has taken reservations expecting more in the next few weeks. This is NOT normal and certainly not legal. The skulls are not antique and have been recently exported out of Africa. Even though hyenas are not protected by the Annex A category in CITES, they are protected via other laws and any wildlife item exported out of Africa must have a paper trail/documentation specifying it’s legal release and origin. You are supposed to keep the documents with you as proof of its origin and those may be important in the future if the law changes as skulls cannot necessarily be aged like “worked” items such as taxidermy. (Even items traveling within the EU must have some documents to prove it’s origin, including captive-bred animals.)

This is deeply worrying. Hyena remains are now desired/wanted by private collectors and vulture culture members alike. This is probably due to their new western popularity, and other large carnivores such as lions and tigers recently becoming protected and therefore their remains rare to obtain and trade on.

Being someone who has worked for hyena conservation and has studied them I understand why people want to get close, I understand why people want to hold their hugely powerful skulls in their hands and to have one on their shelf. But this growing trade and market will only lead them to the same declines that big cats are facing, be extremely careful with who you buy from. Only buy from accredited sellers and sellers with the correct origins and paperwork. Where possible only purchase from captive bred animals who have no impact on wild populations. Thank you.