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Preserved thylacine, 1930s.
Preserved thylacine, 1930s. Photo: George Serras.

A rare and delicate specimen

One of the prized specimens in the National Historical Collection is a whole preserved body of a thylacine. There is no information on how or where the specimen was collected, but the last well-documented capture of a wild thylacine was in September 1930, and this specimen was probably collected around that time. The same year, surveyor Selby Wilson caught an adult male thylacine with the faded markings of an old animal. Its skin is now also part of the Museum's collection.

Thylacines are now presumed to be extinct, although claims of sightings are aired occasionally. The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus, or 'dog-headed pouched-dog') was a large carnivorous marsupial. It is also known as the 'Tasmanian tiger' or 'Tasmanian wolf', but the animal was originally not confined to the island-state of Tasmania. Fossilised remains of thylacines have been found in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland.

Thylacines were believed to kill livestock and were often shot and trapped. Rural depression increased the pressure on the species - the thylacine was a convenient scapegoat for poor financial returns and high stock losses. Even when they were known to be close to extinction, little was done to save them. In fact, the thylacine was only declared a protected species in July 1936, a few weeks before the last thylacine died in Beaumaris Zoo on 7 September 1936.

It is clear that the Museum's specimen was never prepared as a biological display specimen. The roughly skinned carcass appears to be missing at least some of its internal organs. However, in spite of its crude appearance, it was preserved according to the usual process of the time for biological material, having been first fixed with formalin and then held in Wentworth preserving fluid (primarily deionised water and glycerol) which keeps the specimen soft and pliable.

The specimen is extremely fragile, and after a period of time on display, conservation staff found that ever increasing amounts of protein from the thylacine's muscles and calcium carbonate from its teeth and skeleton were moving into the solution. This meant that material from the specimen itself, some of which gave it its structural strength, was being lost. The thylacine has now been installed in a new tank which, together with ensuring that it is protected from vibration when on display, will enhance both its visibility and long-term survival.

Patrya Kay

More information

Collection highlight on the Thylacine

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