Zebra opossum (also zebra wolf) noun: the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine.
Over decades of research into Australian English, we have collected a lot of old, outdated, and little-known Australian words. For many, we found too little evidence to warrant an entry in the latest edition of the Australian National Dictionary (2016). This was often the case with old names for flora and fauna. With digitised resources like the National Library of Australia’s Trove database, we are now able to reconsider this evidence.
Two examples are zebra opossum and zebra wolf, names dating from the early 1800s for the extinct Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). Although the Australian National Dictionary does not include these terms, it does reveal eleven different names for this marsupial, most now as extinct as the Tassie tiger itself.
The many names show us that early colonial observers of the Tasmanian tiger had a hard time categorising it—hyena, tiger, wolf, opossum?—and could not reach consensus on a common name. The confusion over names goes right back to the early colonial period: ‘It is vulgarly called the Zebra Opossum, Zebra Wolf, &c.’ (Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, vol. 9, 1808).
Nearly 150 years later, one of the last pieces of written evidence for zebra opossum and zebra wolf shows that naming was still an issue:
If we knew it only by its technical name, Thylacine, meaning ‘pouched dog’, there probably never would be any confusion [between the Tasmanian tiger and the Tasmanian devil], but we have several inappropriate names, handed down the years since settlers used to see it commonly on their sheep runs—such names as ‘wolf’, ‘zebra wolf’, ‘hyena’, ‘hyena opossum’, and ‘zebra opossum’. Some of the names are still used, so is there any wonder a few of us get our identification mixed a little…? (Hobart Mercury, 31 January 1953)
The use of zebra in names for the Tasmanian tiger is easy to understand, thanks to the dark stripes on its back, rump, and tail. It is a reference to the distinctive markings of the African zebra, whose name has been used in the common names of other striped plants and animals since the 1760s. Australian examples include zebra fish, zebra finch, and zebra parrot, an old name for the budgerigar. Today we no longer see the stripes of Thylacinus cynocephalus as zebra stripes, but stripes have influenced the common name we use most often—Tasmanian tiger.
Other names for the Tasmanian tiger are less obvious, such as the opossum element of zebra opossum. This seems very odd to those of us familiar with Australian possums or their distant relations, the American opossums. Most are about the size of a domestic cat or smaller, and many are arboreal, whereas the Tasmanian tiger was the size of a large dog, and certainly no tree climber. But there is one significant similarity. Like possums and opossums, the Tasmanian tiger was a marsupial, with a pouch for its developing young.
Because of this, the use of opossum in zebra opossum begins to make some sense, especially when we look at the earliest scientific description of the Tasmanian tiger. In 1808, George Harris gave it the scientific name Didelphis cynocephala, putting it in the same genus, Didelphis, as a number of American opposums. Didelphis means ‘two wombs’, where the second womb refers to a marsupial pouch. The species name, cynocephala, means ‘having the head of a dog’. A simple translation of Didelphis cynocephala is ‘dog-headed opossum’, where we understand the ‘opossum’ to be marsupial.
Although the genus name for the Tasmanian tiger would change some years later, the opossum reference would linger for some time:
Sir, I am rather interested just now to obtain some information respecting the Thylacinus Cynocephalus (dog-faced opossum). I believe the animal dwells in the highest and rockiest parts of Tasmania, and is known as the ‘Zebra wolf’ or ‘Zebra opossum’. (Hobart Mercury, 3 January 1885)
Other early descriptions and names seem more fitting, like those referring to its dog-like appearance. The word wolf too, as in zebra wolf, is a better choice than opossum. The Australian National Dictionary records the names marsupial wolf, Tasmanian wolf, tiger wolf, and simply wolf from the early to mid-19th century.
The names zebra opossum and zebra wolf are recorded more than twenty years earlier than the now established forms—Tasmanian tiger and thylacine—but died out in the first half of the 20th century, about the same time this unfortunate animal was driven to extinction.
Zebra opossum and zebra wolf will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.