Tuesday, 14 October 2014

John Gould: an enduring witness to Australia’s lost mammals

The 19th century ornithologist had a surprisingly progressive view of Australian animals, championing the fast-disappearing thylacine and broad-faced potoroo, even if he also knew how to cook a wombat


theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 October 2014 05.49 BST

That old cliche “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” has a truly hollow ring when applied to Australian’s awareness of its lost mammals.

Most Australians are barely aware of the creatures that still inhabit their island and couldn’t tell the difference between a bettong (a shin-high kangaroo) and a wambenger (a small marsupial carnivore) if they got kicked in the eyes by one. A bettong that is. A wambenger would more likely target the jugular with its sharp little teeth.

It wasn’t always so. Early European settlers were keenly attuned to the foibles of bettongs. Native mammals were part of their daily lives, raiding gardens, stealing poultry, eating pasture, a source of fur, and more often than not of free meat, too. And it was into this world of abundant native mammals that John Gould arrived.

One of the 19th century’s most talented ornithologists, Gould was lured to Australia’s shores by its birdlife with a view to producing a series of lavishly illustrated works.

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