Featured

The “Thylastream” effect

This is the post excerpt.

I start this blog by writing about a random idea, that I had one random morning which turned into something highly influential on the subject of modern extinction. With its devastating consequences both environmentally and socially.

(For those that want to learn more about the thylacine in general, or what a thylacine actually is. Here is a link to a blog post by “Twilight Beasts”: https://twilightbeasts.wordpress.com/category/thylacine/)

With having too many files on a PC it soon becomes a problem, so I decided it was time for a clear-out. Scrolling through hundreds of folders that I squirreled away for safe keeping I came across my “Thylacine file”. Back when I was an illustration student I went through a deep obsession with thylacines, their enchanting ghost-like faces peering at you from the grainy photos that were around long before I was born. It was an echo from the recent past, an echo that still shatters the souls of many today when thylacines grace any conversation.

Looking through my photographic collection I decided that others should see/share these images. Many of these photographs were only viewed by “thylacine fanatics” that would search for hours trolling the internet for hidden forums and web pages. I uploaded my first photo, then another and another. People began to talk about thylacines then suddenly it exploded and I found myself sharing as many images as possible. This one of the positives of social media it’s a platform for education which allows people to see content that would usually remain unseen to most audiences.

AUSTRALIA-SCIENCE-ANIMAL-DNA

(Thylacines pictured at Hobart Zoo in 1933)

Everyone started to get caught up in the excitement sharing images, newspaper articles and blogs on my feed, then somewhere in the mass of conversation my feed became dubbed as “The Thlyastream”.  The name has since stuck, then it became a permanent feature on my Twitter page, allowing people to immerse themselves in thylacine content. Learning more about this amazing species, perfect examples of convergent evolution that now is lost to us with very little field research on their natural behavior.

I was particularly surprised at the number of people who came forward stating that they didn’t believe the thylacine was a real existing animal. This misnomer is mostly linked back to thylacines taking route in the realms “cyptozoology” alongside mythical animals such as “Bigfoot”.

thylacine-trio

Another topic that was raised on a number of occasions during the “Thylastream” was “why all of the photographs featured thylacines in captivity?”. With deep regret, I informed that this was due to sheer lack of scientific interest in the species whilst it was alive (In fact many people quoted them to be dull and boring animals). Despite global interest in the thylacine ,we know very little about them only partial bits of information, which makes their rapid extinction more criminal.

In captivity they were treated cruelly evidence of this features in some of the photographs, many had parts of their long tails missing due to in-house aggression and many died of exposure to the elements.The thylacine never successfully bred nor reproduced in captivity. Despite it’s “dog-like” nature and it’s tame behavior around people, these characteristics weren’t enough to save the species.

thylacine-in-the-sun

I have recently taken on the task of creating a public domain folder that features all of my collected photographs of thylacines. They act as invaluable references to artists in particular! I will certainly blog about this mammoth task once it reaches completion.

thylacine-family

(Thylacine family at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, 1909)

The “Thylastream” teaches us about the importance of mourning an extinct species so that the same mistakes can be avoided at all costs. Social media gives us a platform to share this knowledge, and I hope that the “Thylastream” inspires people to share their own thoughts and feelings on not just thylacines but with many extinct species that we have lost due to human-related causes.

thylacine-2

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.

bronx zoo

(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?

dead thylacine

(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.

grainy photo 1

(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”.

mange fox 1

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

mange fox thylacine comparison

(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.

sunbathing thylacines

(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.

thylacine clone 1

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.

thylacine clone 3

(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.

thylacine clone 2

(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.

 

Thylacine search in Queensland: My two cents

Over the last week, I’ve had multiple links sent to me regarding the latest sightings in Queensland ( Cape York peninsula) and the search which will be later conducted by James Cook University. In fact, the news hit so hard my dad contacted me from his work desk, which is something that he never does to tell me the news. Suddenly thylacine mania hit the tabloids and online blogs once more!

Yet I sit here unmoved. I refuse to get emotionally invested at this point in time. This blog post is my “two cents” on the news, this is my blanket response to the latest thylacine hype. But be prepared to have your hopes dashed with large amounts of skepticism. But I will let you all down gently.

Firstly I post a quote from The Guardian (“Sightings” of extinct Tasmanian tiger  search in Queensland – Tuesday 28 March 2017 :

“Descriptions of their eyes, size, shape and behavior were inconsistent with known attributes of other large species in north Queensland such as dingoes, wild dogs or feral pigs.

The sightings were at two separate locations on Cape York peninsula, but the specifics were being kept confidential, said Laurance. “Everything is being handled with strict confidence.

To my knowledge, some of these sources were from park rangers, people you would hope could tell the difference between a wild dog with mange and thylacine. But these sightings were recorded at night. Even the most capable people get ID’s wrong and without a clear view, your brain has a tendency to fill in the blanks. If in the back of your head you want to see a thylacine, you will. Thylacines were largely reported to be active at night, but were not strict nocturnal animals and had the flexibility to hunt during the day as well as go about their business in daylight if needs must. So surely, someone must have seen a glimpse of a thylacine albeit at dusk or dawn after a night’s activities? where one would recline back to the undergrowth.

(Just adding to my point, that thylacine behavior was poorly studied. Scientific interest in the thylacine whilst they were alive left much to be desired. We can only go off records of thylacines in captivity and the notations made by locals/travelers alive at the time. So if you saw an animal in darkness or glimpsed a behavior, how would you know for sure that it was a thylacine?)

Alas, I am met with just a few blurry photos of foxes with mange skulking off into the distance and eye-witness reports which are spoken with hushed murmurs in local bars, by people who cannot get their heads around the crime that humanity inflicted on the thylacine.

bad taxidermy thylacine

By posting another quote from The Guardian newspaper, the true intent of the James Cook university becomes clear. This study isn’t really about the thylacine but is in fact about recording the animals already inhabiting Cape York peninsula.  Including gaining important data on internal relationships that could potentially help the survival of live threatened species.

“Sandra Abell, a researcher with James Cook University’s Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science who was leading the field survey, said they had been contacted with more possible sightings since their intentions were publicized.

Many mammals, including the northern bettong, were at risk from introduced predators, she said.

“It is a low possibility that we’ll find thylacines, but we’ll certainly get lots of data on the predators in the area and that will help our studies in general.” – The Guardian 

In my opinion, thylacines are and always will be extinct. This is often a hard concept for even the most hardened of conservationists to grasp, but we must. Extinction is forever, no more will we be graced with thylacine calls echoing through the forests, no more will we see their faces. We need to come to terms with extinction in order to stop this crime against nature from repeating itself. We killed the thylacine, persecuted them beyond repair, trapped them, made their furs into ornate blankets and stuck their heads on our walls.

We no longer have live thylacines, just trophies of remorse and dusty sun bleached taxidermy cases that grace our museums. There is no fixing this, no “get out of jail cards”, DNA remodeling can make ghosts in a shell, but they would never be thylacines. They would remind me of moving pictures in a museum, they would only serve the purpose of making us all feel better about human powered extinction.

dead thylacine

A part of my imagination still wanders, maybe, somehow, thylacines are out there hiding in the depths of the forest away from human hands and greed. But what I wish to be true and what is fact are are polar opposites. So I must let go of this “woo” and lulled sense of security of a possible “Jurassic Park”, for the sake of other species that will end up the way of the thylacine.

So my skepticism remains clear. There is no proof, no biological evidence that the thylacine still walks the earth.

dead thylacine 2

Our museums are worth saving. Let them inspire you.

 

Museums helped to capture my imagination as I was growing up and installed a lifelong passion for the natural world as well as a respect for all different types of being that share our planet. I strongly believe that museums helped me form into a knowledgeable well-rounded adult with imagination, determination, and passion. Because the information was open access and the admission fees often free or nominal, my family had no issues with taking me regularly and allowed me to feed off the information given to me. I will also note that it is important for parents to engage with their kids whenever they visit museums and educational facilities, parents often talk to me about how they aren’t very knowledgeable, but that honestly doesn’t matter. Nobody knows everything. But passion/enthusiasm is what counts. Museums can give you the tools that you need to communicate the facts and objects laid out in front of you if you still don’t understand something embrace the opportunity to find out about it! by either asking a volunteer in the museum, emailing the museum or use internet search sites. Allow yourself to get bitten by the bug, it’s ok to have childlike curiosity.

Let’s start to use the phrase “I don’t know, but let’s find out!”  Suddenly a dull family trip simply “staring at cabinets” becomes an adventure if you allow yourself to make it one.

For some people getting inspired by museum exhibits is easy, especially if you are interested in the subject and you’ve been studying it. But let’s be brutally honest not everyone will hold the same candle that you would do to land mollusks (memo to me) so you have to communicate things in different inventive ways, make the subject appeal to different chosen audiences. Because to most people, a snail is a snail, but what if you told a group of disinterested school children that they can have mutations that allow snails to grow multiple functioning eyes or the fact that you can make functioning explosives out of snail mucus? (albeit complicated)

As for myself, I’m always inspired sometimes even the most simple of objects can create a narrative.

That Pleistocene hyena tooth is not just a tooth to me. It was once a part of an animal that more than likely sat within a cave entrance 125,000 years ago looking across the British savannah, its gnaws on a horse tibia as it crushes the bone to get the delicious marrow inside, it creates the wear marks that can still be seen on the tooth to this day. When the hyena died due to clan warfare, the tooth lay dormant in Tornewton cave it lay as the Romans came and went, it lay as the Vikings arrived on our shores, it lay still as the black death ravaged across Britain until finally it was discovered, exchanged hands and then reached me.

Allow museums to inspire you, the gimmicks and technology use is always fun no doubt about it! But sometimes it’s nice to go back to basics.

 

 

Fossil hyena mystery, tenacity in archeology.

A few people will have noticed by now that I’m obsessed with hyenas, Pleistocene hyenas in particular. Some also know that I own a Pleistocene hyena tooth, it appears regularly in my art and desk photos. But I am looking to reunite it with its original museum based collection, which in itself is proving to be a tough task.

Pleistocene hyenas rampaged around the UK from 125,000 years ago up until 60,000 years when they slowly became extinct, more than likely due to the changing climate in Europe. However within the United Kingdom hyenas are one of the most prevalent Pleistocene animals to be discovered, in many cave sites such as Kirkdale and Creswell specimens are found of all ages indicating that they had a strong social structure with varying individuals. At Tornewton cave it has been noted to have had in total 20,000 hyena teeth remains which indicate a long-term use as a hyena den.

In 2015 I stumbled across a popular fossil website selling a group of Pleistocene hyena teeth. This is rare but not unusual. Over the years numerous Pleistocene hyena teeth, bones, skull, and jaw fragments were listed for sale on the open market to any private collector that had money to spend. But all of these specimens were not labeled or marked and had origins in central Europe, for example, Romania. But these particular teeth were noted to have come from Tornewton cave and had the marks “TN ( )” on each specimen. This is very peculiar, usually, privately owned specimens are not marked. Private collectors are usually adverse to marking their specimens as they generally feel that it spoils the appearance of the specimen as many fossils in private collections are for aesthetic value.

I decided to purchase the tooth, I made an appointment to see Jan Freedman at Plymouth museum and the rest is history. Firstly getting an ID is important I knew that it was an M1 carnassial molar, from research it was either hyena or lion. If it happened to be a “cave lion” molar, the scientific importance of the specimen would have been doubled as lion remains are far rarer. This is more than likely due to the fact that lions did not reside in cave systems, and many lion remains were scavenged/brought in by resident hyenas.

However, after cross comparisons, we came to the conclusion that it was indeed a hyena carnassial molar. This was later solidified by Jane Ford of Sheffield university who at the time was specializing in British hyena material.

11102701_1609526305931353_2518582060915582969_n

Finally, I could carry on with my research now that I had some firm foundation to it. The tooth in the meantime was being stored in a place with low humidity in a special case, care of museum collections has always been something that I’ve had hands-on experience with so I was within my element. As this tooth lives in my care, I was sure to prevent damage to the specimen and kept handling to a minimum. Fossils from caves can have remarkable preservation as seen in my tooth. However, they are extremely fragile and great care should be taken with these remains.

I wrote a long statement on the “fossil forum” asking members worldwide if they had any other material from this collection or any understanding of the markings “TN()”. Whilst I used social media to gain connections I decided to do a little research on the excavations of Tornewton Cave, how they were conducted, who were they conducted by and the general timescale of excavations carried out.

Sadly there was little on Tornewton cave itself, there some sources which state that Tornewton may have been first excavated by James Lyon Widger in 1870. However, his excavations were generally carried out in an unscientific manner and many finds lack sufficient data.Further, poorly recorded excavations were carried out in 1936-9 by AH Ogilvi. Tornewton investigations then began in 1944 however on a small scale, various others followed up until the 1960s. The cave has one main entrance and two subsidiary ones at higher levels.

The upper entrance is 2.5 metres high, 1.6 metres wide, and the cavern extends for about 5 metres with a vertical drop of 6 metres. The other entrances are each about 1.7 metres high and 0.7 metres wide, leading directly to the fissure. Excavation spoil was still visible outside the three entrances in 1960. Finds have included substantial Pleistocene fauna, one deposit reportedly yielding over 20,000 hyaena teeth during Widger’s campaigns. The more recent excavations found a further 1300. Unsurprisingly, Widger named the cave The Hyaena Den.

tor map

Partial reproduction of the original profile of Tornewton Cave (from Sutcliffe and Zeuner, 1962)

As my knowledge began to mount on Tornewton cave itself and it’s various excavations I started to get more curious about the hyena tooth and its origins. It seemed highly likely that the specimen could have come from an ex-museum collection. I began talking to Rena (justrena on Twitter) and we decided that it will be a fun project to have the tooth carbon dated so when it is reunited with the rest of the Tornewton collection it will have some firm data attached to it.

However, the final twist in the tale so far is that I was randomly contacted by a member on fossil forum relating to the post that I had made (2 years ago). He told me that his friend has hyena remains with the same markings and the original box that they came in. Immediately I asked for an email discussion and pure archeological gold emerged. The friend had kept a photo record, and the teeth/bones all seemed to match up, the marks were the same and I could tell that they were written by the same person because the “N” letters appeared to look like a slanted “H”.

hyena collection 1

The original box appeared to keep in tune with the same handwriting and labeling. It reads “crocuta foot bones unstratified Tor Newton”. Which rings true as Horizon 01,02 or known as the “hyena stratum” have no definite location and possibly thus concludes by the author of the label “unstratified”.

hyena collection 4

I was also told that this purchase was made in April 2015, around the same date/month as I acquired my tooth. It is very possible that the original seller can still be tracked down and more information about this odd little collection from Tornewton can be brought to light.

Tenacity and being obsessed pays off, as well as keeping your ear to the ground and getting to the source. Hyena teeth are not rare artifacts, but I believe that every specimen counts and if you can use modern technology to regain lost data this can be uplifting news indeed.

More on this to come when the tooth is sent off for carbon dating, until the results come back this blog post now concludes. Thank you for reading!

Getting back on that horse!

It’s been a while since I made a blog post, so it’s about time! Towards the end of last year, I decided to take time out from freelancing to better myself and get organized. Now I feel that I’m finally ready to “get back on the horse”.

A surprise donor (they know who they are) gave me a generous amount of money towards my laptop campaign, so I can finally get the equipment that I need to move on. Thanks to everyone who donated towards that campaign, you have helped me grow and prosper as a freelance sci-artist and you will see further progressions and images emerge over the next year thanks to your kind donations and unrelenting support. I haven’t rushed myself into getting a new PC, I have contacted the leading technician at my dad’s work, to help me find the right model that should last me for many years to come. We are down to a short list! Once my new PC arrives I will make a thank you video and it will launch myself into my shiny new business practice.

I have taken all of the advice, criticisms, and mistakes from last year and used them all to better my business as a freelancer. I have a new work ethic, a new set of illustrations to launch and a new mindset to help me get back into the game. I am also aiming to work part-time in a stable job to support my income, this means that I won’t have to worry about surprise bill payments or rent. In turn, this will put the stress slightly off my freelancing. I have applied to a few jobs and hopefully with some luck, one of them will bear fruit.

A new idea is to sell prints/products through the site Redbubble, I am slowly uploading images onto the site but I believe this will suit customers who just want prints or merchandise without going through me personally. If you have any comments to make about Redbubble or advice with selling please comment here or email me at bethwindleillustration@gmail.com

Another is that I will set up a “patron a drawing” page on my new website when it finally launches. This will act in a similar way to Patreon (the website), but instead of going through the hassle of subscribing every month, you can donate any amount you wish to completion of a particular illustration. Illustrations that are not commission based do need to be funded in a similar way, as it helps to give me a wage whilst I work. People who “patron” will have perks such as first purchase rights on the original, first purchase rights to the first LE print editions etc. I still need to iron out this idea so if you have any comments about this, please comment on this blog or email at bethwindleillustration@gmail.com

I am looking at new ways to make my sci-art accessible to clients and new business venture ideas! I’m ready to give this a fresh start.