The Tasmanian tiger is still extinct. Reports of its enduring survival are greatly exaggerated.
Officially known to science as thylacine, the large marsupial predators, which looked more like wild dogs than tigers and spread across Tasmania and mainland Australia, were declared extinct in 1936. But the February 23, Neil Waters, chairman of Australia’s Thylacine Awareness Group, promised conclusive photographic evidence of a surviving thylacine. All four photos, he claimed, showed a family of thylacines, including a juvenile, moving through a dense brush. The announcement sparked a wave of enthusiasm among wildlife aficionados.
But, analysis by thylacine specialists quickly debunked the photos as a case of mistaken identity. The event is the latest in a tradition of outlandish claims over photographic or video evidence of lost or unknown species that don’t work. Why do these cycles occur so regularly, sometimes even convincing experts? The answer, psychologists say, may lie in the quirks of the human mind and the way we process information that is both familiar and difficult to perceive.
While such images sometimes turn out to be a hoax, there are plenty of photos and videos that show real animals – even if they are not what people say they are. In 2005, a WWF camera trap captured images of a “mysterious carnivore” – probably a flying squirrel – in the Indonesian jungle of Borneo. In 2007, 2011 and 2014, clips of hairless dogs and raccoons in Texas were described as chupacabras.
That same year, a kayaker recorded footage that purported to show an extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp, causing heated blanket and broad scientific interest. Many experts ultimately concluded that the bird was more likely a pounded woodpecker.
It is not impossible that presumed extinct species reappear. Last month, news of the rediscovery of the Black-Browed Babbler, missing since the 1840s, emerged after two Indonesians grabbed and photographed a specimen. A day later, an entomologist, ad the discovery of a tiny population – only six specimens – of the Australian cape bee, last seen in 1923.
This is partly why the prospect of thylacine sequences was so compelling to hopeful researchers. Unlike Bigfoot or Nessie, these animals were unmistakably real, well photographed during their lifetime, and almost died out in living memory. Taking a photo of one of them doesn’t necessarily seem like overkill.
And in the age of smartphones, cameras are everywhere. In fact, images taken by camera traps or amateur naturalists can help establish the presence and activity patterns of animals in the environment, said Holly English, a doctoral student in wildlife ecology and behavior at the University. College Dublin.
“There are animals that visit my own backyard that I only know from camera trapping,” Ms. English said.
Photos can also help reveal animals living in unexpected places. His research on breeding populations of exotic wallabies in Britain, for example, relied in part on images shared on social media.
Susan Wardle, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health in the United States, says the cycles of expectant beliefs canceled by further analysis may in part be explained by human psychological quirks.
Processing every individual sensory detail is impossible, she says, so our brains actively reconstruct our visual world based on the complex but ambiguous input received by our eyes. Research has shown that unclear sensory data – like a blurry picture – causes the brain to rely more on preconceived patterns to understand their meaning.
“This means that there is an interesting interplay between perception and cognition – our beliefs and past experience can influence what we see. Or more specifically, what we think we are seeing, ”said Dr Wardle.
This trend can mislead people when studying photographic evidence of long-invisible animals, sometimes referred to as cryptids, especially if they already have an idea of what they’re looking for. Many people who research such enigmatic creatures have an emotional investment in identifying them, “and are already convinced that the creatures are already out there,” said Christopher French, who founded the Anomalistic Psychology research unit at Goldsmiths. , University of London, and recently retired.
This pre-existing belief makes it easier to begin to see the career in every shadow and rustle of the brush, adds Dr French, or in photographs that don’t offer a clear look at the animal in question. It can also cause people to miss details that might contradict their preferred hypothesis.
In a YouTube video posted on February 23, Mr Waters, a former professional horticulturist, claimed he captured footage proving thylacine was alive. Passing past a landscape of felled trees, he described setting camera traps in the Tasmanian bush and capturing four “unambiguous” still images of a thylacine family.
Populations of thylacine began to decline soon after European settlers arrived in Tasmania, an island south of mainland Australia, in 1803, winnowed by government-sponsored hunting, competition from feral dogs, loss of habitat and disease. The last known individual, “Benjamin”, died in captivity in 1936, leaving behind only haunting pieces of film.
Sightings were reported in the decades that followed, which drew several expeditions into the Tasmanian wilderness in search of survivors, said Darren Naish, a paleozoologist at the University of Southampton in England. None succeeded. Yet reported sightings continued and even increased in the 1980s, and are still reported today.
“This suggested that the sightings were a social phenomenon, not a zoological phenomenon,” said Dr Naish.
Mr. Waters sent his photographs to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for analysis by Nick Mooney, an expert in thylacine. He and his colleagues refuted Mr. Waters’ claims.
“TMAG regularly receives verification requests from members of the public who are hopeful thylacine is still with us,” the museum said in a statement. “Based on the physical characteristics shown in the photos provided by Mr. Waters, it is very unlikely that the animals are thylacines.”
Instead, he said they are more likely Tasmanian pademelons, a big little wallaby-like marsupial.
Many thylacine observations are similar misidentifications, said Adam Pask, a thylacine researcher at the University of Melbourne. “There are quite a few wild dogs roaming around Tasmania,” said Dr Pask. “So it’s very easy to spot a ‘thylacine’ looking animal in the bush if you look closely enough and want to see enough.
These types of mistakes are common, Dr Naish said, in part because even those with outdoor experience and researchers are not always adept at identifying animals from unfamiliar angles or in unfamiliar states. Size and distance can be difficult to judge in photographs, making domestic cats look like big cats. Subtract the fur, as in the occasional rotting raccoon or mangy fox carcass, and even familiar mammals can look deeply strange – or like an extinct marsupial predator.
“We all make mistakes: Even the most experienced naturalists make misidentification, sometimes hilarious,” said Dr Naish. However, those who devote themselves to the hunt for cryptic animals are often ready to accept more ambiguous images, while rejecting the critical opinions of trained experts.
“The most common cognitive bias that we all suffer from is confirmation bias,” said Dr French. If you are invested in finding the cryptid you are looking for, you are more likely to find the convincing evidence.
On March 1, Mr Waters – who did not return multiple requests for comment – posted the photos as part of a 19-minute video, inviting viewers to “make up their minds”. In a suite interview with News.com.au, he said the response to his photos by expert analysts gave him “more fire in my stomach to prove them wrong.”
“It won’t be much longer,” Waters said. “Because we are about to get irrefutable proof that the animal is still there.”