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Tetrapod Zoology

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Williams and Lang s Australian Big Cats: do pumas, giant feral cats and mystery marsupials stalk the Australian outback?

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Virtually all people interested in animals are aware of the so-called ‘mystery big cat’ phenomenon. Large, often black, cats are reported with apparent frequency from the eastern USA and the UK. But the phenomenon isn’t unique to those two areas. Here, we’re going to look specifically at the ‘mystery big cat’ phenomenon in Australia. The Australian situation is familiar to those who follow the cryptozoological and fortean literature, but I’m not sure how well known it is otherwise. Suffice to say that big black and sandy coloured cats, and livestock kills attributed to them, have been a regular and consistent area of discussion across Australia for many decades. Do reported sightings, photos and pieces of film really show that big cats (or big cat-like mammals) are abroad in the Australian bush? If so, what precisely are these animals and where might they have come from?

A few good books have already reviewed Australian big cat sightings. Karl Shuker’s 1989 Mystery Cats of the World is a classic, and Tony Healy and Paul Cropper’s 1994 Out of the Shadows includes a good section on Australian big cats too. One of the most influential books on the subject is David O’Reilly’s 1981 Savage Shadow: the Search for the Australian Cougar [recently republished by Strange Nation Publishing; adjacent cover image of 1981 edition from Mike Williams’s Australian Big Cats blog]. O’Reilly’s book mostly centres around the experiences of those who clamed to have seen (or experienced the depredations of) the ‘Cordering Cougar’ in West Australia during the 1970s. One of the main contentions about the ‘puma’ phenomenon wasn’t just that people were seeing big, puma-like cats in the West Australian bush, but also that government officials were unwilling to investigate or make announcements about it. This apparent lack of government action has been a consistent theme throughout the Australian ‘mystery big cat’ experience.

A long term interest and involvement in Australian and world mysteries led Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang to research and produce what is now the definitive volume on Australian mystery big cats; it’s titled Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers (Williams & Lang 2010). At 434 pages, it’s substantial. It’s also highly readable, nicely formatted and very well illustrated. The authors have collated a vast amount of information gleaned not only from published sources but also from interviews with both eyewitnesses and people who have examined evidence firsthand. Williams and Lang clearly travelled widely across the country, photographing locations, people, documents, taxiderm specimens and so on at what must have been great personal expense. They obtained freedom of information acts and other previously undisclosed documents. A lengthy appendix (c. 120 pages) includes copies of numerous letters and documents produced by government officials, veterinarians, ecologists, geneticists and others. The volume is fully referenced (though with the citations given at the bottom of the respective pages, rather than at the end of the text) and with an index.

So, to anyone seriously interested in mystery animals, mystery big cats or Australian mammals in general, this book is a must-have. Never before has so much data been gathered together on the subject: well done to the authors on this substantial achievement. [Graphic below borrowed from Centre for Fortean Zoology Australia].

Map of Victoria showing locations of reported sightings. From a May 2010 newspaper article.

There are wild big cats in Australia

As I (generally) always say when talking about mystery animals, remember that these phenomena aren’t just interesting because there might be real, flesh-and-blood animals at the bottom of the reports: even if there are not, mystery animal sightings, accounts and stories are still fascinating and research-worthy subjects, combining as they do psychology, sociology, folklore and human observational skills and biases. Remember that some people who would ordinarily be labelled cryptozoologists are quite happy to be regarded as folklorists.

However, while the mystery big cat phenomenon does indeed involve sociology and folklore, there’s no doubt that at least some sightings involve real animals. Large (sometimes black) feral dogs and dingoes, foxes and even wallabies explain some ‘big cats’ sightings, but not all of them. Australian big cats aren’t just represented by eyewitness accounts and hazy photos, but by some pretty good photos, and also by a number of dead bodies. Let’s look at some of these cases.

The St Arnaud puma, shot in 1924.

Among the more impressive photos is that taken by Barry Morris in 1978 near Carnarvon in West Australia. It shows a big, black cat walking along the top of a hillside, its long, cylindrical tail held in a curve up over its rump. A puma that escaped from a travelling circus, and lived wild for a time, was shot at St Arnaud in Victoria in 1924 while another puma was shot at Woodend, Victoria, during the 1960s. The Woodend animal was stuffed and then pretty much forgotten about until 2005. And in 1985, a lioness – the ‘Broken Hill lioness’ – was shot in New South Wales. This case has become notorious due to its apparent lack of investigation by the Department of Agriculture (Williams & Lang 2010). Remarkably, vocalisations apparently made by large cats living wild in the Australian bush have been caught on tape at least twice.

Footprint cast at Hawkesbury, NSW, in 2011, and thought to have been made by an animal that killed a captive alpaca. Sure looks like a large felid print to me.

Various footprints, scat and large animal kills attributed to big cats have also been recorded [adjacent footprint photo from here]. Williams & Lang (2010) publish many of these. Many of the tracks do look unmistakeably cat-like, and vets, ecologists, professional mammalogists and government officials are on record as saying that large cats are indeed the most likely, or only likely, culprits (Williams & Lang 2010, pp. 253-272). As Williams & Lang (2010) explain, some of the more positive assessments (including those penned by Charles Sturt University ecologist Johannes Bauer, Deakin University’s John Henry, and veterinarians Keith Hart and Ron Hynes) have been essentially buried or kept quiet by some of the governmental bodies that have been asked by farmers and stock-owners to investigate. So, there are non-native big cats running around in the Australian outback, at least sometimes.

The so-called 'Territory Tiger': a sandy-coloured cat, photographed by Jan Donovan in 2007. It looks large but it's just about impossible to accurately judge scale. It might be a puma or a large, skinny feral.

Pumas, moggies, marsupials: competing or overlapping hypotheses of origin

Black jaguar photographed in captivity. There's something weird about this animal's tail.

In my view, the Australian ‘mystery big cat’ phenomenon is made especially interesting by the fact that three very different hypotheses have been invoked to explain the identity of the creatures involved. Some researchers contend that two or even all three of these hypotheses have merit.

Hypothesis 1 is that some or all of the cats are the descendants of military mascots or escapees from circuses, private collections, zoos and so on [adjacent Black jaguar photo by Cburnett]. They thus represent pumas from the America, lions from Africa, leopards from Africa or Asia, and so on. Hypothesis 2 is that feral cats have grown to extraordinary size in the Australian bush, and that these monster moggies account for some or all ‘big cat’ sightings. Hypothesis 3 – the most extreme and interesting idea, I think – is that some of the animals are not cats at all, but big, cat-like marsupials that either represent new species, or late-surviving members of one of the thylacoleonid (= marsupial lion) taxa.

As should be clear from what I’ve already said, I think we can be pretty confident that some sightings of Australian big cats really do represent encounters with lions, pumas and members of other species (perhaps including Golden cat, Jaguar and even Tiger). What about hypothesis 2? Long-time readers will recall my ‘Australia’s new feral megacats’ article of 2007. Various photos and bits of film seem to show feral cats – that is, members of the same species as the domestic cat (Felis catus or whatever you choose to call it) – that are extraordinarily big, with shoulder heights of about 60 cm and total lengths exceeding 1.5 m.

Kurt Engel, a dead megacat, and a lot of forced perspective.

Two keys bits of evidence in particular seem to support the ‘feral mega-cat’ hypothesis. One is the cat shot dead by hunter Kurt Engel in Gippsland, Victoria, in 2005. This animal was claimed to be somewhere round about 1.6 m long (in Williams & Lang (2010), Engel says that it was over 2 m long in total), with its tail alone being 60 cm in length. The fact that Engel discarded the body and deliberately used forced perspective in his photos of the carcass haven’t exactly helped add credibility to the case, but a photo published by Williams & Lang (2010) does seem to support these rough measurements. Williams & Lang (2010) cover this case at some length and explain how they helped arrange for DNA testing on tissue from the animal’s tail. These tests (the reports are included in the volume’s appendices) identified the animal as Felis catus.

Still from the 'Lithgow panther' footage.

The second bit of evidence is the so-called ‘Lithgow panther’ footage, filmed in 2001 by Gail and Wayne Pound at Lithgow, New South Wales. After catching sight of a surprisingly large black cat in the scrub near their house, the Pounds decided to film it and managed to get 15 minutes of footage. The cat was in close association with a normal-sized feral cat, yet (as demonstrated by people who visited the site and measured the height of adjacent vegetation) had a shoulder height of about 50 cm and hence was more like a puma in size (shoulder height 60-70 cm) than a domestic cat (shoulder height 25-30 cm).

Opinion differs as to whether the existence of these really big feral cats is remarkable or not. I think it’s at least very interesting, in part because I find appealing the idea that something about the Australian ecosystem is encouraging large size in some Australian feral cat populations. And once a cat of any sort approaches or exceeds a metre in total length, people who see it will refer to it as a ‘big cat’. So, some ‘big cats’ are not big cats in the strict sense at all, but big ‘small cats’.

Modern marsupial lions and other marvels

Cartoon showing (l to r) big black cat, Queensland tiger as reconstructed by Heuvelmans, the Rilla Martin animal, and a thylacine.

Hypothesis 3 rests on the idea that a few eyewitnesses have described animals that, while cat-like, supposedly exhibit weird, sometimes marsupial-like traits. A few decades ago, the idea that a long-tailed, stripy, leopard-sized Australian animal might exist in Queensland (and perhaps elsewhere) was fairly popular (Heuvelmans 1995). Dubbed the ‘Queensland tiger’, it was regarded by some as a possible living species of marsupial lion (a group of extinct marsupials, properly called thylacoleonids, otherwise thought to have become extinct during the Pleistocene: see this article for more) (Shuker 1989, Healy & Cropper 1994). Alas, the idea that the Queensland tiger was real has mostly fallen away now given the total absence of material evidence, photos and recent eyewitness accounts.

But while belief in the Queensland tiger has mostly evaporated, it’s thought by some cryptozoologists that various of the black or tan-coloured Australian ‘big cats’ might be marsupial lions too. I learnt of this idea from both Healy & Cropper (1994) and from Rex Gilroy’s terrible but entertaining book Mysterious Australia. Among the various tales that Gilroy recounts is one where the witness describes seeing a rear-facing pouch and joey in a big black ‘cat’ (Gilroy 1995). The witness surmised – and Gilroy agreed – that at least some Australian ‘big cats’ are not cats at all, but extant marsupial lions. That’s pretty neat stuff; shame that other Australian researchers have failed to record similar accounts, or indeed to verify the existence of the witnesses that Gilroy quoted... though read on.

Rilla Martin's 1964 'Ozenkadnook tiger' photo.

The face of 'Jaws'. Poor puss.

Williams and Lang devote a chapter to the supposed existence of modern day, thylacoleonid-like predators. Some of my favourite cases included in this chapter include Rilla Martin’s creature, photographed in 1964 and previously covered here on Tet Zoo, and the ‘Jaws’ carcass, found on a beach sometime in the 1980s (Shuker 1996, Williams & Lang 2010) and suggested by some writers to be a dead thylacoleonid (as the authors note, and as I hoped to demonstrate, it was actually just a dead domestic cat). Incidentally, thanks to the authors, I’ve actually gotten to see a filmed interview with Rilla Martin where she describes her encounter. It was very interesting to see her recount the tale in her own words. [Thylacoleo image below by Karora, from wikipedia.]

Thylacoleo skeleton, on display at Naracoorte Caves. Photo by Karora.

A few accounts, photos and bits of film are highly intriguing in view of ‘hypothesis 3’. Williams & Lang (2010) might not verify Rex Gilroy’s accounts, but they do provide some equally surprising ones. A farmer, searching for a missing cow in 2005, found that it had been severely wounded by a broad-headed predator, still in attendance, that “seemed to have some marsupial-like attributes” and was long-bodied, short-legged and long and thick in the tail. The cow’s calf had been killed. The photo taken in 1981 by Martin Williams as she “wandered down to the lagoon on her Moyston, Victoria property to take photographs one afternoon” (p. 205) is peculiar. The photo isn’t great (the animal is facing away from the photographer and its outlines are hard to demarcate from the waterhole behind it), but the animal’s apparently muscular hindlimbs and short, very slender tail don’t look right for a cat, dog or just about anything else you might think of.

There’s also a very odd piece of film taken in 1994 (stills are provided in the book) where a stocky, short-tailed animal with a distinctive gait and deep, boxy head runs alongside some overgrown railway tracks. The animal looks weird and I could probably convince myself that it doesn’t represent a big cat, feral dog or a member of any other known species. However, as is typical for footage of this sort, the animal is at a distance, the footage is fuzzy, and I conclude that it’s probably not possible to say for sure just what the animal is.

And what to make of the weird, bushy-tailed animal – apparently a predatory marsupial of some sort – described by Gary Opit after his 1969 night-time encounter? Based on Opit’s (not wholly unique) account, the animal couldn’t have been a surviving thylacine or anything known to be alive today.

Gary Opit's weird, bushy-tailed ?marsupial. From Williams & Lang (2010).

Necessary pedantry: things to dislike

There are a few things that I really don’t like about Australian Big Cats. The book includes a huge number of photos, eyewitness drawings and other illustrations – that’s great. But I often found it difficult to relate the figures to the nearby text, and to find that specific part of the text that describes something shown in one of the figures. So things would have really been improved had the figures been numbered (as in: Fig. 1, etc.). I’m also not too keen on the way the figures are presented. All too often, they’re reproduced at tiny size and the details are hard to make out due to their reproduction in black and white. To make matters worse, virtually all of the images have thick white borders round their edges. These serve only to make the images even smaller. So, bigger, clearer pictures would have been nice. Given that the book is already 437 pages long, you might think that the authors (and/or the designers) were very keen to do things not to make it any larger. But this brings us to another issue – the extraordinary amount of wasted space in this book.

Firstly, there are many sections where the authors write in short, one-sentence paragraphs. That works for a tabloid newspaper, but not for a detailed tome such as this where it can be assumed that the reader has an attention span exceeding a few seconds. This style of writing also ruins the flow of the text and creates a lot of wasted space on the page. Demonstrating to your prospective readership that you have the facts and figures at your fingertips – especially when writing about something as controversial and problematic as Australian big cats – is half the battle, and I feel that this is destroyed by this kind of choppy, disjointed writing. I’m sure I’m not alone in disliking a book once I see that much of it is empty (to anyone with the book at hand: random examples include pages 163, 234, 241 and 284).

This spacey look isn’t just created by the disjointed writing style; it’s exacerbated by the book’s design. I just do not understand why some publishers choose to waste enormous amounts of paper by designing books where the pages have huge, bland borders. Granted, you don’t want text to disappear in the recesses of the book’s spine, and there has to be enough room for the reader’s fingers, but… come on: each and every page in Australian Big Cats includes a 35 mm border at the bottom, a 42 mm border at the top, a 25 mm border on the right, and a 17 mm border on the left! Again, I dislike this sort of thing because it creates an airy, data-free look to a volume.

l to r: Mike Williams, Darren Naish, Rebecca Lang. Hopefully we're still friends.

As I hope is clear from this review, overall I found Australian Big Cats an impressive piece of work. The amount of research involved in its production was clearly vast, and the authors did a great job in presenting the enormous body of data they collected in a readable, enjoyable format. Williams and Lang have also done us all a great service in going ‘straight to source’ behind the scenes by digging out previously unreleased documents using freedom of information requests and so on. As outlined above, I do wish that Australian Big Cats had been presented in a different, in general ‘more technical’, way, but I say again that it is, to date, the ultimate book on the subject and one that should definitely be consulted by anyone seriously interested in Australian cryptozoology, or indeed in cat lore or biology in general. Given that Australian ‘big cats’ – whatever they are – have received all too little ‘official’ attention, will this huge book be the catalyst that helps break down the stigma that still surrounds this fascinating subject?

Williams, M. & Lang, R. 2010. Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers. Strange Nation, Hazelbrook, NSW. ISBN 978-0-646-53007-9. Softback. References. Index. Illustrations. 437 pp.

For more on Australian mystery animals see...

And for previous Tet Zoo articles on cats worldwide, see...

Refs - -

Gilroy, R. 1995. Mysterious Australia. Nexus Publications, Mapleton, Queensland.

Healy, T. & Cropper, P. 1994. Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia. Ironbark, Chippendale, Australia.

Heuvelmans, B. 1995. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Kegan Paul International, London.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1989. Mystery Cats of the World. Robert Hale, London.

- . 1996. The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Natural and Paranormal Mysteries. Carlton, London.

Williams, M. & Lang, R. 2010. Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers. Strange Nation, Hazelbrook, NSW.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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