Footage of the Last Known Tasmanian Tiger Restored in Color (1933)

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice announced that near­ly two dozen wildlife species would be removed from the endan­gered species list, as CNN report­ed, includ­ing the ivory-billed wood­peck­er, “the Bachman’s war­bler, two species of fresh­wa­ter fish­es, eight species of South­east­ern fresh­wa­ter mus­sels and 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacif­ic Islands.” This is not good news. The ani­mals have been delist­ed because they’ve been added to a list of extinct crea­tures, one that grows longer each year.

Most of us have seen few, if any, of these ani­mals and can­not grasp the scope of their loss. What does it mean to say there are no more Bachman’s war­blers left on Earth? Species wiped out by cli­mate change, over­farm­ing, over­fish­ing, or the encroach­ment of humans and inva­sive species can feel far away from us, their loss a dis­tant tragedy; or extinc­tion can seem inevitable, like that of the Dodo or Sicil­ian wolf, crea­tures that seem too fan­tas­tic for the world we now inhab­it. So too, the dog-like mar­su­pi­al Tas­man­ian tiger — or thy­lacine — an ani­mal that lived as recent­ly as 1936 when the last rep­re­sen­ta­tive of its species, named Ben­jamin, died in cap­tiv­i­ty in Aus­tralia.

The thy­lacine looks like an evo­lu­tion­ary odd­i­ty, too weird to sur­vive. But this judg­ment is a mis­ap­pli­ca­tion of Dar­win­ism as egre­gious as the idea that only the “fittest,” i.e. those who can take good beat­ing, sur­vive. The day Ben­jamin died, Sep­tem­ber 7, has been com­mem­o­rat­ed in Aus­tralia as Nation­al Threat­ened Species Day, which rais­es aware­ness about the hun­dreds of plant and ani­mal species close to extinc­tion. The day also cel­e­brates the hun­dreds of species found nowhere else in the world, ani­mals that could come to seem to us in the near future as strange and exot­ic as the thy­lacine — a fas­ci­nat­ing exam­ple of con­ver­gent evo­lu­tion: a mar­su­pi­al canid that evolved com­plete­ly inde­pen­dent­ly of wolves, dogs, and oth­er canine species with which it had no con­tact what­so­ev­er until the British arrived.

Found only on the island of Tas­ma­nia by the time of Euro­pean set­tle­ment, thy­lacine pop­u­la­tions were destroyed by dis­ease, dogs, and, pri­mar­i­ly, human hunters. Before the final mem­ber of the species died, they were kept in zoos and cap­tured on silent film by nat­u­ral­ists like David Fleay, who shot the black-and-white footage just above of Ben­jamin at Beau­maris Zoo in Hobart, Tas­ma­nia. In the video at the top, we can see the same footage in vivid col­or — and full dig­i­tal restora­tion — thanks to Samuel François-Steininger and his Paris-based com­pa­ny Com­pos­ite Films.

Sent an HDR (High Dynam­ic Range) scan of the film by the Nation­al Film and Sound Archive of Aus­tralia (NFSA), François-Steininger had to make a lot of inter­pre­tive choic­es. Next to “orig­i­nal skins pre­served in muse­ums,” the NFSA notes, his team “had to rely on sketch­es and paint­ings because of the lack of orig­i­nal col­or pic­tures or footage that could be used for research.” While there are 9 short film clips of the ani­mals from the Lon­don and Hobart zoos, these are all, of course, in black and white. “Writ­ten descrip­tions of the thy­lacine’s coat gave them a gen­er­al idea of the tints and shades present in the fur, infor­ma­tion they sup­ple­ment­ed with sci­en­tif­ic draw­ings and recent 3D col­or ren­der­ings of the ani­mal.” The results are incred­i­bly nat­ur­al-look­ing and star­tling­ly imme­di­ate.

Are the thy­lacine, Bach­man’s war­bler, and oth­er extinct species vic­tims of the Anthro­pocene? Will our chil­dren’s chil­dren chil­dren watch films of polar bears and koalas and won­der how our plan­et could have con­tained such won­ders? Geo­log­i­cal epochs deal with “mile-thick pack­ages of rock stacked up over tens of mil­lions of years,” Peter Bran­nen writes at The Atlantic, and thus it over­states the case to call the last four cen­turies of cli­mate change and mass extinc­tion an “Anthro­pocene.” The word names “a thought exper­i­ment” rather than a span of deep time in Earth’s his­to­ry. But from the per­spec­tive of crit­i­cal­ly endan­gered species — maybe to include, even­tu­al­ly, humans them­selves — the trans­for­ma­tions of the present seem square­ly focused on our reck­less behav­ior and its effects on habi­tats we nev­er see.

We are far less impor­tant to geo­log­i­cal time than we think, Bran­nen argues, but it does, indeed, seem up to us at the moment whether there is a future on Earth filled with plant, ani­mal, and yes, human, life:

We haven’t earned an Anthro­pocene epoch yet. If some­day in the dis­tant future we have, it will be an astound­ing tes­ta­ment to a species that, after a col­icky, globe-threat­en­ing infan­cy, learned that it was not sep­a­rate from Earth his­to­ry, but a con­tigu­ous part of the sys­tems that have kept this mirac­u­lous mar­ble world hab­it­able for bil­lions of years.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Two Mil­lion Won­drous Nature Illus­tra­tions Put Online by The Bio­di­ver­si­ty Her­itage Library

Are You Ready for the Return of Lost Species?: Stew­art Brand on the Dawn of De-Extinc­tion

The Pra­do Muse­um Dig­i­tal­ly Alters Four Mas­ter­pieces to Strik­ing­ly Illus­trate the Impact of Cli­mate Change

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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