Why Do So Many People Fake Sightings of Extinct Species?

The state of the universe.
Sept. 5 2013 3:41 PM

Crying Wolf. And Auk. And Tasmanian Tiger.

Fake sightings of probably extinct species.

Tasmanian tiger, or Thylacinus, in Washington D.C. National Zoo, around 1904.
The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, in the Washington D.C. National Zoo around 1904. The species went extinct just a few decades later.

Photo courtesy of E.J. Keller Baker/Smithsonian Institution archives

This summer Australian naturalist John Young assembled members of the media and told them something they should not have believed: He had found night parrots. Night parrots! A combination of words so evocative it made the journalists’ mouths water. Parrots of the night—a species some thought had gone extinct. Though sightings of these curious little birds occasionally trickled in from Australia’s arid center, no live birds had been captured or photographed in decades. John Young was here to change all that—if he was telling the truth.

Journalists had good cause to be skeptical. Young was not releasing the images or the sound recordings he said he had obtained of the mysterious species. Nor was he revealing the location of the birds, for fear, he said, that they would be threatened by an onslaught of birders and media.

More damaging to his credibility, though, was the widespread understanding that in 2006, Young had faked the discovery of a different Australian parrot species, a bird he dubbed the blue-browed fig parrot. He had shown photographs, announced the authorship of scientific papers, and again nobly withheld the birds’ location for their own protection. However, Young’s claims were quickly unraveled. A photography expert from Melbourne found evidence that the blue-browed fig parrot photos were manipulated images of another species. Young produced no additional information to back up his claims, and he slunk into the outback.

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It can be very hard to know whether a species is in fact extinct. After all, we’re still finding species we didn’t know existed in the first place. The difficulty of proving that a species is gone, combined with the human desire to believe that we aren’t responsible for wiping an entire innocent species off the face of the Earth, has led to the creation of a hazy frontier of probably extinct species. We are willing to hope that a species is still alive long after it’s last been seen, and those who do rediscover lost species—such as the coelacanth, kakapo, or Lord Howe Island stick insect—are hailed as heroes. As you can imagine, it’s an atmosphere ripe for fraud. These are some of the most shameless and creative examples of fakery, deception, and willful blindness from around the world.

Thylacine (last confirmed sighting: 1936, Tasmania)

The thylacine was a fascinating creature: a marsupial, like a koala or a kangaroo, but with gigantic jaws and a fierce reputation. In modern history, the wolflike animal lived only on the island of Tasmania. After European settlers arrived, it developed a predilection for sheep and chickens, leading farmers and bounty hunters to relentlessly hunt the animals. The last wild thylacine was shot in 1930, and the last known animal, named Benjamin, died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936.

However, by the time of its extinction, the “Tasmanian tiger” had secured its place in the Tasmanian identity—the creature is depicted on both the island’s coat of arms and its current government logo—and locals still aren’t ready to let it go. Hundreds of searches have been conducted, in which people have scoured appropriate habitats and followed up on the many unconfirmed sightings.

Perhaps the most promising lead was a set of photographs taken by Kevin Cameron in 1985 of what appeared to be a thylacine digging behind a tree in Western Australia. As is often the case with probably extinct species, the photographs raised more questions than answers. Haven’t thylacine been extinct on mainland Australia for thousands of years? Why couldn’t he get a photo showing its head? Why is there a rifle laying in the foreground? Cameron was unable to offer any additional evidence, and the photos are now generally thought to depict either a stuffed thylacine or a different animal. Despite 80 years without proof, sightings continue to pour in.

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