Tasmanian Devils: Not so Fierce Beasts

Published on 6th April 2017

Elizabeth Murchison
Elizabeth Murchison

The Linnean Society has long been at the forefront of scientific discoveries, and our latest display illustrates the connection between the society and the discovery of the mysterious tasmanian devil and tasmanian tiger.

Fellows and members of the public were treated to a fascinating talk by Dr Elizabeth Murchison on Transmissible Cancers in Tasmanian Devils at the last Evening Meeting of the Society. This talk outlined the danger faced by Devils from a deadly transmissible cancer, spread through biting, which has seen numbers decline rapidly in recent years.

Tasmanian devil
Tasmanian devil by E Fry (1970)

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is the world's largest carnivorous marsupial. It belongs to the Dasyuridae family and is only found on the Australian Island State of Tasmania, after they went extinct on mainland Australia — probably because the introduction of the dingo. They take their name from their signature screams and can live up to 5 years in the wild.

Our meeting rooms were the perfect setting for this lecture as the first written account of the Tasmanian Devil, as well as the Tasmanian Tiger, was sent to the Linnean Society in 1808 by naturalist, George Harris. His paper, which still exists in the archive today, contains illustrations and descriptions of the appearance and behaviour of the creatures.

Our latest display, which includes material from our library and archive, celebrates the discovery of the Tasmanian devil, as well as the now extinct Tasmanian tiger. One of the highlights is a beautiful illustration of the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) by John Lewin in c. 1809.

Tasmanian tiger
Tasmanian tiger by J Lewin (1809)

The last of these creatures was thought to have died out in 1936, and the species was officially declared extinct in 1986, but recent possible sightings in northern Queensland have led to renewed hope that the species did not die out after all.

The exhibition also examines the danger which humans associated with these creatures, which is evident in Harris’ early account, and the devastating effect this fear had on the survival of these two species.

Come along and see the displays which are in the reading room!

Liz McGow, Archivist