Saturday, November 6, 2010

"Tassie" treasures

The preserved skins of the extinct Tasmanian tiger are worth tens of thousands, but Bill Warren of Fallriver, California, may have picked one up for a song. Warren (6th image) - ironically, an ocean-going treasure hunter - bought the pelt for $5 at a garage sale in June. It had been purchased at another garage sale in Boston 32 years earlier. If authenticated, the skin may fetch $70,000 at auction. John Long, an Australian native and V.P. of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, has not yet seen the skin in person, but identified the pyramid-like design of stripes as unique to the animal.

Because most of the known skins reside in museums and universities, the pelts of the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) are rare and extremely valuable to private collectors. A thylacine skin mounted and framed c. 1930 sold at auction for $68,000 (3rd image). A unique thylacine skin "buggy rug" (1st image, click to zoom in) was in private hands for more than a century. Tasmanian farmer Robert David Stephenson had the rug made c. 1903 from the skins of tigers he trapped to stop them from killing his livestock. The thylacine rug was made from rectangular sections taken from the striped backs and rumps of 8 of the animals, and measures 1180cm x 1070cm. Stephenson's descendants sold it to an Australian couple at an estate sale in 1945 for a little over £3. The buggy rug was among the items put up for auction by their daughter, Angela Foster, in 2002, and purchased by the Federal Group for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery for $270,000.

The National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., acquired their specimens - including a mounted female thyacine that died in 1904 and the unmounted skin of a young adult male that died in 1905 (2nd image) - from live animals brought to the Smithsonian's National Zoo for a captive breeding program. The museum recently sequenced the DNA from their hair. Specimens held in the mammal collections of the Australian Museum include a mounted thylacine skin (a little worse for wear) (4th image) and a wet specimen of a thylacine pup (5th image). I would rather see geneticists resurrect the thylacines than the dinosaurs!

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