IT could be back to the future for a long-lost Tasmanian bird as the debate rages over a new logo for the Hobart City Council.
Former mayor Damon Thomas has proposed the council revert to its historic coat of arms, instead of the futuristic logo which incorporates two interwoven blue and green bands, dubbed a set of Band-Aids by one alderman.
It just so happens that the coat of arms – designed in 1951 and based on an earlier unofficial crest used by the city from the 1850s – incorporates a Tasmanian emu, the giant flightless bird destined to become extinct as the new British colony grew and prospered.
When it comes to extinction of native fauna and flora, the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, tends to grab all the headlines and it is not generally known outside of the birdwatching community the state had its own emu distinct from the mainland species.
Like the debate about the proposed logo, debate still rages about whether the emu was a fully-fledged species or merely a sub-species of the mainland one. Some ornithologists suggest it might not have been different at all, although there is evidence of another extinct emu, the one on King Island, being a specific species.
What is without doubt is that an emu once roamed the Tasmanian eastern plains, and there are early reports of parties going out to grasslands surrounding Rokeby on the Eastern Shore to hunt them. However, before the Tasmanian emu could be fully studied, it vanished from the landscape. Existing in the open plains, it was extremely vulnerable to being killed not only by people with guns, but by their dogs.
Its demise was so rapid that no dead specimens were collect for museums and so there is no material for testing which might prove it to be genetically different from mainland species.
All that remains of the emu, I am told, are two eggs, one engraved with the outline of the Cascade brewery in South Hobart.
The written record is there, though; one noted hunter being the Reverend Robert Knopwood, the preacher and diarist who gave his name to the popular Salamanca pub, Knopwoods. He wrote of shooting emus in the mid-1800s. By all accounts, the emus made good eating.
Alderman Thomas notes the existing coat of arms would provide a more powerful image for the city and I have to agree with him but I might be biased because it features a bird in its design, along with a forester kangaroo, the Tasmanian sub-species of the mainland grey kangaroo.
I’d never looked at the historic coat of arms closely until I read Alderman Thomas’s comments in the Mercury but there are other symbols in the design which pay tribute to the unique attributes of this island. Both the emu and the kangaroo have a collar which comprises a small garland of apples and leaves. Although the emu and kangaroo might provide a connection with the Australian Coat of Arms – granted in 1912 – the collars deliberately distinguish the Tasmanian animals from the national emblem; the apples signify the importance of the apple industry to the “Apple Isle”.
By all accounts the Tasmanian emu was a magnificent bird and when it was realised it was heading towards extinction, or just after it had vanished, emus were imported to Tasmania from the mainland to replace the local ones.
This complicated later efforts to establish if the Tasmanian emu was unique or not, because it is believed introduced emus interbred with endemic ones.
The fact that Tasmania’s two greatest representatives of birds and animals – the tiger was the biggest carnivorous marsupial and the emu the state’s biggest bird – is a sad reflection on the priorities of the early pioneers and settlers to develop this island at all costs.
The creatures live on in spirit though – the emu on the current Hobart coat of arms and the tiger on Launceston City Council’s logo. The image of the tiger, of course, can also be seen on Tasmanian motor vehicle number plates.