|George Prideaux Robert
George Harris (1775-1810)
was Deputy Surveyor of Van
Diemen's Land and a keen amateur naturalist. In a letter
addressed to Sir Joseph Banks dated 31st August 1806, he first makes mention
of his discovery of the thylacine and Tasmanian devil.
George Harris's letter
to Sir Joseph Banks - upper half of first page (detail).
Courtesy: Linnean Society
of London. Photo: Dr. Stephen Sleightholme.
"I take the liberty
of transmitting to you drawings and descriptions from the life of two animals
of the genus Didelphis, natives of this country, which I believe in every
aspect new, at least I have never seen any description of either.
As I believe it is not uncommon of newly discovered animals to be communicated
to the Royal or Linnean Societies. If you sir, judge those sent worthy
of that honour I shall be amply repaid for my labour".
Two years later, in
1808 Harris described Didelphis cynocephala - the Zebra opossum
or Zebra wolf in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. This was
the first scientific observation made on the thylacine. Harris states:
Description of two new Species of
Didelphis from Van Diemen's Land.
By G. P. Harris Esq.
Communicated by the Right Honourable
Sir Joseph Banks, Bart, K. B. Pres.
Read April 21,
| The length of this
animal from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail is 5 feet 10 inches,
of which the tail is about 2 feet. Height of the forepart of the
shoulders 1 foot 10 inches - of the hind part 1 foot 11 inches. Head
very large, bearing a near resemblance to a wolf or hyaena. Eyes
large and full, black, with a nictitant membrane, which gives the animal
a savage and malicious appearance. Ears rounded, erect, and covered
with short hair. Black bristles about 2 inches long on the upper
lips, cheeks, eyebrows, and chin. Mouth very large, and extending
beyond the eyes. Cutting teeth small, obtuse, 8 in the upper jaw,
and 6 in the lower. Canine teeth 2 in each jaw, strong, 1 inch long.
Twelve molars in the upper jaw and 14 in the lower, of which the four hindmost
The legs are short and thick in proportion to the length of its body.
Forefeet 5 toed, claws black, short, and blunt, with a callous naked heel.
Hind feet 4 toed, claws short, covered by tufts of hair
and Didelphis cynocephala by George Harris.
Source: Transactions of the
Linnean Society of London, 1808, Vol. 9, pp. 74-78, Tab 29.
inch beyond them, with a long callous heel reaching the knuckle.
Tail much compressed and tapering to a point, covered with short smooth
hair on the upper part; sides and under part bare, as if worn by friction;
not prehensile. Scrotum pendulous, but partly concealed in a small
cavity or pouch in the abdomen. Penis projecting behind: glans forked.
The whole animal is covered with short smooth hair of a dusky yellowish
brown, paler on the under parts, and inclining to blackish grey on the
back. On the hind part of the back and rump are about 16 jet-black
transverse stripes broadest on the back, and gradually tapering downwards,
two of which extend a considerable way down the thighs. On dissecting
this quadruped, nothing particular was observed in the formation of its
viscera, & c., differing from others of
its genus. The stomach contained the partly digested
|remains of a porcupine anteater, Myrmecophaga
aculeate. The history of this new and singular quadruped is at present
but little known. Only two specimens (both male) have yet been taken.
It inhabits amongst caverns and rocks in the deep and almost impenetrable
glens in the neighbourhood of the highest mountainous parts of Van Diemen's
Land, where it probably preys on the brush Kangaroo, and various small
animals that abound in those places. That from which this description
and the drawing accompanying it were taken, was caught in a trap baited
with kangaroo flesh. It remained alive but a few hours, having received
some internal hurt in securing it. It from time to time uttered a
short guttural cry, and appeared exceedingly inactive and stupid; having
like an owl, an almost continual motion with the nictitant membrane of
the eye. It is vulgarly called the Zebra Opossum, Zebra Wolf, &
A watercolour sketch
of a "Tyger trap" similar to that used by
Harris to capture his thylacine.
Thomas Scott (1823).
Courtesy: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.