Discovery of marsupials

Rick Toomey toomey at
Wed Sep 20 08:33:27 EST 1995

mgk at darwin.clas.Virginia.EDU (Mahlon G. Kelly) writes:

>doslic at  writes:
>>   I would like to know when Europeans first discovered marsupials. Which 
>>   animal was the first marsupial known to European science? What was it's
>>   taxonomic position? And in which way discovery of marsupials affected
>>   established taxonomic schemes?
>I believe it must have been the American opossum. I believe
>(but am not certain) it was described by Linneaus. Since the
>first Europeans in America would have seen it, long before any
>in Australia, it must have been the first.

Dr. Kelly is indeed correct that the American possum was first described 
by Linneaus.  Didelphis marsupialis (the Southern Opossum) is the 
type species of the genus Didelphis (which also included the genera
Caluromys and Marmosa in Linneaus's description) (Linneaus Syst. Nat.,
ed. 10, 1:54).

The first marsupial to come to the attention of Europeans was apparently
a female southern opossum from Brazil that was presented to the royal
court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain by the explorer Pinzon.  This
occurred in the year 1500.  The monarchs are reported to have dubbed
the animal (which had young in its pouch) an "incredible mother."
(M.A. O'Connell, American Opossums, IN D. Macdonald, ed., The 
Enyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File Publications, p. 
830-837), 1984).

Russell (1984, Marsupials, p. 824-829 in D. Macdonald, Encyclopedia
of Mammals) notes the following:

  The first marsupials brought from South America to Europe in the 
  16th century were considered zoological curiosites.  It was not
  until the exploration and settlement of Australia from 1770
  onwards that a sufficient variety of species was collected for
  European zoologists to realize that, rather than a few aberrant
  rodents, they were dealing with a natural group of mammals
  which shared a most unusual mode of reproduction. (p. 824).

Sorry I don't have any primary sources to recommend.  Good luck in 
your search for the history of thought on marsupials.

Rick Toomey
Illinois State Museum
toomey at

More information about the Bioforum mailing list