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Donald Thomson


Like his mentor Walter Baldwin Spencer, Donald Thomson (1901–70) was highly regarded as an anthropologist. Although basing himself in Melbourne, Thomson determined at an early age to participate in expeditions, and these eventually established his scientific reputation.

Major expeditions to Cape York Peninsula, Queensland (1928–29 and 1932), and Arnhem Land, Northern Territory (1935, 1936–37 and 1941–43), resulted in a wealth of information collected by Thomson. He also had an early interest in natural history, and obtained more than 300 bird specimens, 400 mammals and more than 700 fish specimens during his expeditions.

Before Thomson’s expeditions, little faunal material from the northern regions of Australia was available. Thomson’s meticulous notes provide good detail that helps researchers to understand the species’ ecology and populations. Each specimen was cross-referenced to native names and its relevance to Indigenous culture. Many of his specimens are from species today regarded as threatened, such as the Golden-shouldered Parrot and the Cape York Peninsula population of the Brush-tailed Phascogale.

Thomson obtained a male of the Northern Quoll from Trial Bay in the Northern Territory in 1942, where it was regarded as numerous. Due to encroachment by the Cane Toad, native animals such as this species may one day become threatened. Thomson’s specimen of the unusual Rough Knob-tailed Gecko was collected in 1933 near the Lower Archer River, Cape York, Queensland.

Rough Knob-tailed Gecko (Nephurus asper)
 Rough Knob-tailed Gecko (Nephurus asper)

 Skull of the Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus)

 Jaw of the Northern Hopping Mouse (Notomys aquilo)


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Rough Knob-tailed Gecko (Nephurus asper), collected by Donald Thomson
Registration No. T 182
Image source: Museum Victoria

© Museum Victoria Australia