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Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Common name

  • This marsupial was given the unflattering "devil" name by early settlers in Tasmania, perhaps after they heard the animal's otherworldly cries in the night (Owen & Pemberton 2005)

Scientific name

  • Sarcophilus ("meat-loving") from Greek sarx or sarkos for "flesh and philos for "beloved, dear, loving" (Gove 1971)
  • harrisii comes from George Harris, the surveyor and naturalist who described the species in 1808 (Wright 2010)

Evolutionary History

  • Marsupials probably arrived in Australia between 71.2 to 65.2 million years ago (Late Cretaceous) (Beck 2008)
    • Traditional hypotheses suggest marsupial taxa dispersed from South America to Australia at this time
      • Recent studies (Beck et al. 2008), however, raise the possibility that some early South American marsupials were actually immigrants from the southern continents of Gondwana/Australia to South America
    • The currently recognized earliest marsupial known from dental, skull, and post-cranial fossils is Djarthia from southeastern Queensland
  • Around 25 million years ago (Late Oligocene) the thylacinids and dasyurid families diverged (Muirhead & Wroe 1998)
  • By about 24 million years ago (latest Oligocene-earliest Miocene) the subfamily to which Tasmanian devils belong (Dasyurinae) separated from the subfamily that led to mouse-sized dunnarts (Sminthopsinae)
  • By 14 million years ago, the dasyurid family radiated into many new forms (Krajewski et al. 2000)
    • New adaptations occurred as major environmental changes were underway
      • Rising mountains in New Guinea
      • Resultant rainshadow effect and drying trend in Australia
  • A 3.6-2.6 million year-old (Late Pliocene) fossil of Glaucodon is quite similar to fossil specimens of early Tasmanian devils; they may be closely related (Gerdtz & Archbold 2003)
    • Described as "intermediate" morphology between quolls and devils (Long et al. 2002)
    • By this time, these marsupials are clearly related to modern arid-adapted dasyurid (Archer 1982):
      • Specimens are slightly larger than devils today
      • Date to at least 23,000 years ago
  • Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilusspp.) are known from many sites and several Ice Age (Late Pleistocene) cave deposits in southern Australia (Dawson 1982)
    • Most date between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago; some up to 100,000 years ago
    • At Naracoorte Caves, South Australia (Williams 1980)
      • Devils (S. laniarius) co-existed with now extinct animals:
        • Thylacines (Tasmanian wolf)
        • Thylacoleo (marsupial lion)
        • Giant kangaroos (Procoptodon)
      • S. laniarius was up to 15% larger than modern devils
    • Naracoorte Caves are now protected as a United Nations World Heritage Site for their diversity of high quality fossils representing major stages of the earth's evolutionary history (UNEP 2011)
  • Devils became extinct in mainland Australia some 400 years before the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s (Archer & Baynes 1972) (Brown 2006)
  • Quolls (Dasyurus sp.) are the closest living relatives of the Tasmanian devils (Wroe et al. 2000) (Krajewski et al. 2000)

Cultural History

  • Archeological sites contain bones of Tasmanian devils (Cosgrove 1999)
    • Some 48,000 years ago, humans occupied Devil's Lair cave in Western Australia (Turney et al. 2001) (Gillespie 2002)
      • Devil bones were found here too, but they were scarce (Balme et al. 1978)
  • According to ethnographic accounts, Australian aboriginals did not often choose to eat carnivorous marsupials (Owen & Pemberton 2005)
  • Archaeologists discovered a necklace made of 178 Tasmanian devil teeth in a western Australia burial site (Flood 2004) (Owen & Pemberton 2005)
    • Site located at Lake Nitchie was dated at around 6820 years ago
    • Teeth, each perforated by hand for stringing, represent some 47 individual devils
    • Owen & Pemberton (2005) suggest aboriginal people may have held devils in high regard
  • The first Europeans in Tasmania (in 1800s) frequently considered devils a pest and a threat to their sheep and chickens; they were described as (Owen & Pemberton 2005):
    • "Savage and untamable to the extreme" by the naturalist and artist John Gould
    • "The head, which is flat, broad, (is) very ugly, and with little skull-room for brains" by author and artist Louisa Meredith (Long et al. 2002)
  • A contrasting portrait of these scavengers was written in 1915 (Owen & Pemberton 2005):
    • "All are tame, frolicsome and lively. I can go in and have a bit of fun with them....when I am outside their enclosure they climb the wire-netting to a height of nearly six feet, and get their little black faces close to mine with evident delight" by the owner of Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Mary Roberts


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Dasyuromorphia (Gill, 1872 sensu Aplin & Archer, 1987) (most of the carnivorous marsupials in Australia; around 70 species of small marsupials)

Family: Dasyuridae (Goldfuss, 1820 sensu Owen, 1839) (some 21 genera of small marsupials)

Genus: Sarcophilus (F. Cuvier, 1837)

Species: Sarcophilus harrisii (Boitard, 1841) - Tasmanian devil

Subspecies: Sarcophilus harrisii harrisii (Boitard, 1841) - extant Tasmanian devil
Subspecies: † Sarcophilus harrisii dixonae (Werdelin, 1987) - extinct Tasmanian devil

Sources: Jackson and Groves (2015); ITIS (2017)

Page Citations

Archer (1982)
Archer & Baynes (1973)
Balme et al. (1978)
Beck (2008)
Beck et al. (2008)
Brown (2006)
Cosgrove (1999)
Dawson (1982)
Flood (2004)
Gerdtz & Archbold (2003)
Gillespie (2002)
ITIS (2012, 2017)
Krajewski et al. (2000)
Long et al. (2002)
Muirhead & Wroe (1998)
Owen & Pemberton (2005)
Turney et al. (2001)
Williams (1980)
Wright (2010)
Wroe et al. (2000)

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