Visit the peaceful locale of Stephen’s Island, located between the two main islands of New Zealand, and you will be impressed by the breathtaking beauty. Although only 1.5 km2 in area, it is full of idyllic views of the ocean and surrounding island. You would never guess it was the home of a killer of an entire species. You have heard of the bloodthirsty killing sprees of Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane. Now it is time to learn the terrifying tale of the destroyer of an entire species. Behold the blood-soaked saga of a cat named Tibbles.
Stephen’s Island is home to a lighthouse that was constructed in 1892. Shortly thereafter, David Lyall was signed on to be the assistant lighthouse keeper. Lyall was an animal lover, whose interests went well beyond pampering his pet cat Tibbles. Lyall was an amateur ornithologist. He eagerly accepted the job on Stephen’s Island in hopes that it would afford him ample opportunity to further his study of native birds.
Tibbles was more than happy to assist in Lyall’s bird studies. The energetic cat loved to roam the island, looking for places to sun herself, frolic, and hunt. Frequently, upon her return to the lighthouse, Tibbles deposited a freshly-killed bird at Lyall’s feet.
It wasn’t long before Lyall realized that one of the birds Tibbles seemed to favor was not showing up in any of his bird books. The bird was small and flightless with olive-brown plumage and a yellow stripe through the eye. Its wings were small and rounded, with loose feathers that were not airtight enough for flight. Lyall sought out the bird and found it in abundance around the island. It tended toward nocturnal behavior. He described its activities as “running around the rocks like a mouse and so quick in its movements that he could not get near enough to hit it with a stick or stone.”
Lyall thought Tibbles might have stumbled across something extraordinary. He wrote to several ornithologists in New Zealand, describing this mysterious bird. The experts were also unsuccessful in identifying it. After studying dozens of preserved specimens sent to them by Lyall, the professional ornithologists declared the discovery of a new species of bird. They dubbed the creature Traversia lyalli, in honor of David Lyall. Its common name became Lyall’s wren or the Stephen’s Island wren.
While all of this was going on, Tibbles continued to exercise dominance over the wildlife of Stephen’s Island. Not only was Tibbles the first cat on the island, but she was also the first mammalian predator. She let her natural predatory instincts take over, and she found the small, flightless Lyall’s wrens easy prey.
In fairness to Tibbles, she wasn’t driven solely by bloodthirsty desire to kill. She arrived on the island pregnant and soon had a whole litter to feed. The kittens found they had a particular taste for Lyall’s wrens, as well, and when they were old enough to hunt, they sought after the newly-discovered species with gusto.
Within a year of discovering the new species, Lyall was warning fellow ornithologists that they were in danger. Writing in February 1895, he warned, “…the cats have become wild and are making sad havoc among the birds….”
One month after Lyall’s dire warnings, an editorial in Christchurch newspaper The Press declared, “there is very good reason to believe that the bird is no longer to be found on the island, and, as it is not known to exist anywhere else, it has apparently become quite extinct. This is probably a record performance in the way of extermination.”
No one knows how many of the Lyall’s wrens once roamed free on Stephen’s Island. All we know now is that only the 15 specimens once preserved by David Lyall himself remain, exhibited at nine different museums around the world.
Tibbles may have destroyed a species, but as far as her contribution toward her own, she was most prodigious. A new lighthouse keeper took over in 1899 and reported the island was overrun by cats — all descendants of Tibbles. In his first nine months on the job, he shot and killed over 100 feral cats. It took another quarter of a century, but in 1925, Stephen’s Island was once again cat-free. Sadly, it was also forever free of the Lyall’s wren.
Other examples stand of the destructive power of invasive species. There are the rabbits of Australia and the starlings inspired by Shakespeare, not to mention the ill-fated war against the emus. None, however, has anyone like Tibbles, who reigns as the undisputed feline destroyer of species.
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