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George Prideaux Robert Harris (1808):

    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.

    Harris states: 

    "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".

George Harris's description of the thylacine and Tasmanian devil - 1808
Excerpt from George Harris's description of the thylacine and Tasmanian devil, presented to the Linnean Society in 1808.  Courtesy: Linnean Society of London.  Photo: Dr. Stephen Sleightholme.

    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. R.S. H.M.L.S.

Read April 21, 1807

Didelphis cynocephala

    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 are trifurcate.  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
Didelphis ursina and Didelphis cynocephala - George Harris
Didelphis ursina and Didelphis cynocephala by George Harris.
Source: Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 1808, Vol. 9, pp. 74-78, Tab 29.
extending 1 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, & c.
thylacine trap - 1823
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.
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