ANIMAL ART OF THE DAY for International Tasmanian Devil Day: Early Natural History Art of the “Bear Opossum”

Today is not only a #MarsupialMonday, but it’s also the first annual International Tasmanian Devil Day!

The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is an endangered marsupial species endemic to Australia. Although it once ranged across the mainland continent, since its extirpation some 3500 years ago, it is now only found on the island state of Tasmania. It was adopted as the official animal emblem of Tasmania in 2015.

Infographic via Peppermint Narwhal Creative

Below is the first published image of a Tasmanian Devil from 1808, initially described as the “Bear Opossum,” alongside the first published image of a Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), similarly described as the “Dog-Headed Opossum” or “Zebra Opossum.”

(At this point, Europeans still tended to dub most marsupials they encountered as opossums, as that was the first and only marsupial they had known of before encountering all the Australasian ones. And they didn’t even know what those were until post-1492, so…marsupials were still really confusing to Europeans LOL!)

Both images are from sketches made in 1806 by George Prideaux Harris, an Assistant Surveyor in Hobart Town. Harris sent these sketches and descriptions of the two “new” animals to Joseph Banks, who presented them at a meeting of The Linnean Society of London in 1807. They were then published in 1808 in the Transactions of the Linnean Society of London Vol. IX, “Descriptions of two new Species of Didelphis from Van Diemen’s Land. By G. P. Harris, Esq. Communicated by the Right Honourable Sir Joseph Banks.”

Plate: Didelphis ursina and Didelphis cynocephala, tab. 19. p. 174.

Here two are five additional color plates from the 19th – early 20th centuries featuring what soon became known as the Tasmanian Devil:

Histoire Naturelle des Mammifères, 1837 (Werner?)
Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur, mit Beschreibungen, 1855 (Weber)
The Mammals of Australia, 1863 (John Gould & H.C. Richter)
The Wild Beasts of the World, c.1909 (C.E. Swan)
Brehms Tierleben, 1911 (K.L. Hartig)

Bonus Book Recommendation:

Tasmanian Devil: A Unique and Threatened Animal (2006/2012)
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