The feisty Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a tough character for sure. The devil’s large head and neck allow it to generate the strongest bite per unit body mass of any extant mammal land predator. But since the early 1990s devils in their eponymous heartland have been threatened by devil facial tumour disease which has dramatically reduced the population and led to an endangered status in 2008. But while conservation bodies are making some way in ensuring the survival of the Devils in Tasmania, the Devils of mainland Australia are long-gone. It is generally accepted that they were spread across the continent in pleistocene times but went extinct through many local extinctions about 3000 years. As for the demise of Thylacines, dingoes are the main suspects.
Their presence in the Northern Territory is demonstrated only by a single fossil from near Darwin and depictions in rock art. I’m quite confident that the animal in the rock art image from the West Arnhem Land plateau is a Tasmanian Devil on the basis of a distinctive body shape, prominent whiskers and posture. The short tail is most persuasive. Tasmanian Devils are not spotted, while another carnivorous mammal, the northern quoll is spotted. But the Northern Quoll has a particularly long tail, tufted at the end. We can be fairly confident that the spots are only decorative in this image — unless of course we had a spotted sub-species of Devil in the north.
As with a lot of rock art, images are often overpainted and indeed the sequencing has been used to provide broad understanding of the chronology of changing styles over the 40,000 plus years since people first put ochre to rock. In this case it’s not easy to tell which came first, the Devil or the Goanna.
The image was recorded on a survey in Marrirn country last month and the excellent Devil drawing was made in Tasmania in 1880 by Louisa Ann Meredith.
The last known Thylacine died in Beaumaris Zoo Tasmania on 7 September 1936. It is believed that it became extinct much earlier on the mainland and its extinction has been linked with the arrival of placental dogs (Canis lupus dingo) on the Australian continent about 5000 years ago. Wiki says intensive hunting encouraged by bounties is generally blamed for its extinction in Tasmania, but other contributing factors may have been disease, the introduction of dogs to Tasmania and human encroachment into its habitat.
In Arnhem Land the Thylacine is gone, but not forgotten. There are countless rock art images of the Thylacine in the rock shelters of Western Arnhem Land and it still has a name in the Bininj Kunwok dialects (including Kundedjnyenghmi). It is known as Djarnkerrk (or Djankerr) and now has a mythic role as the travelling companion of Ngalyod, the great creator rainbow serpent being.
We have no way of knowing when this life-sized rock art image of Djarnkerrk from the Liverpool River was painted but the doyen of Arnhem Land rock art, George Chaloupka, exclaimed in awe when he first saw this image “I have seen many, and this is the best”.
Another eminence, also deceased, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, recalls that as a child he gave his personal companion and hunting dog the name Djarnkerrk.
When Mandy Muir pointed out these Sarus cranes (Grus antigone) [top two photos] on the plains at Yellow Waters in Kakadu this time last year, I didn’t realise quite how lucky I was to see and photograph them in our part of the Deep North. Professor Stephen Garnett from Charles Darwin University tells me that this was the first time they had been noted in the Top End. Only three birds were seen and they have since departed. Sarus cranes have been sighted in years past down near Borroloola and reported once from the Ord River in Western Australia. Their stronghold is North Queensland and the Gulf Country. Amazingly, they are believed to have been present in Australia for perhaps 10,000 years but were only first recorded officially in 1968. Since they were first noticed their numbers seems to have been growing and it’s believed there are around 5,000 birds now. They benefit from some kinds of farming but other crops like sugar cane are bad news for them. Habitat loss in Thailand and the Phillipines has seen the sub-species in both places become extinct. A population of about 700 is being studied in northern Cambodia. This population is regarded as “steady” but nevertheless vulnerable to threats from changes in land use. India has been paying special attention to their Sarus crane population and Professor Garnett reports that there are about 10,000 birds doing quite well there. Superficially, the Sarus looks like the more common and widespread Brolga (Grus rubicundus) [bottom photograph] but on closer inspection there is plenty to distinguish between them. Brolgas have dark legs and Sarus crane legs are pinkish to reddish. The Sarus has more red on its head and neck, with the red extending down the neck a little. A size difference is also noticeable amongst adults, as the Sarus is about 10% bigger than the Brolga. The Sarus has a lighter beak to that of the Brolga. Given the fate of the Sarus in Thailand and the Phillippines, we need to pay more attention to make sure we don’t overlook these cranes again…as settler society did in Australia until 1968.