Looking for what’s out there
WERE they thylacines merely optical illusions?
JCU researcher Dr Sandra Abell has got a problem – scientific rigour means she must keep an open mind yet be sceptical at the same time.
James Cook University is upscaling its surveillance of remote wilderness areas in parts of Cape York following two remarkable observations of a dog-like creature that came to light just a few months ago.
Though both of the reports – by credible witnesses: one was a park ranger and the other a long-time bushy – date back 30 years ago they have since been followed in recent weeks by lots more similar reports – to the point where JCU added this mystery creature to its research effort.
The university researchers already have a lot of cameras out in remote places, hoping for rare animals to stumble into the field of vision.
Such as the northern bettong, which is the main subject of Dr Sandra Abell’s investigation of the wild.
Though she isn’t looking for thylacines in particular, she has “an open mind” as to whether they are out there. Or something like them. Or something like something else.
“I think it’s great that people or have the interest in our natural environment, and I take their observations absolutely seriously.
“These two observations were actually very detailed,” Dr Abell said of the park ranger and the bushy.
“Often observations are very fleeting, but these men both gave detailed descriptions of observing animals for a long period of time, and what they saw couldn’t really be explained as another animal.
“I guess that’s where we got very excited – these were quite reputable and detailed sightings.”
At the same it’s important to remember these are only observations. So we have to have an open mind and be sceptical at the same time.”
The reason a scientist may not dismiss far fetched reports out of hand is that the wilderness is a very unknown place.
One thing scientists do be- lieve is that rare animals are so thinly distributed and the bush so vast and unvisited by man, that there are guaranteed to be animals running around out there we have not seen before.
“As a wildlife biologist I study the northern bettong (an endangered mammal) and I know difficult it is to find them, even though I know that they’re there,” Dr Abell told the
“Recently we discovered a new population of them but it took a huge effort – we had to put 100 cameras out to find just three of them.
“When animals are in very low density it can be almost impossible to find them. And when you’re talking about predators such as a large thylacine-like animal or a big cat, you’re talking about extremely low densities.
“It is a fantastic idea that they’re there, but at the same time extremely low densities would explain much. We barely know anything especially in remote locations that are unsurveyed, like the Cape.
“The diversity in those remote areas has not been explored by science. “There’s things to discover. “People ask why do you bother to look for thylacines. Actually I’m, not looking for thylacines – I’m looking for what’s there.”
Dr Sandra Abell of JCU