Running hastily through the chief marsupial developments, one may say that the wombats are pouched animals who take the place of rabbits or marmots in Europe, and resemble them both in burrowing habits and more or less in shape, which closely approaches the familiar and ungraceful guinea-pig outline. The vulpine phalanger does duty for a fox; the fat and sleepy little dormouse phalanger takes the place of a European dormouse. Both are so ridiculously like the analogous animals of the larger continents that the colonists always call them, in perfect good faith, by the familiar names of the old-country creatures. The koala poses as a small bear; the cuscus answers to the racoons of America. The pouched badgers explain themselves at once by their very name, like the Plyants, the Pinchwifes, the Brainsicks, and the Carelesses of the Restoration comedy. The ‘native rabbit’ of Swan River is a rabbit-like bandicoot; the pouched ant-eater similarly takes the place of the true ant-eaters of other continents. By way of carnivores, the Tasmanian devil is a fierce and savage marsupial analogue of the American wolverine; a smaller species of the same type usurps the name and place of the marten; and the dog-headed Thylacinus is in form and figure precisely like a wolf or a jackal. The pouched weasels are very weasel-like; the kangaroo rats and kangaroo mice run the true rats and mice a close race in every particular. And it is worth notice, in this connection, that the one marsupial family which could compete with higher American life, the opossums, are really, so to speak, the monkey development of the marsupial race. They have opposable thumbs, which make their feet almost into hands; they have prehensile tails, by which they hang from branches in true monkey fashion; they lead an arboreal omnivorous existence; they feed off fruits, birds’ eggs, insects, and roots; and altogether they are just active, cunning, intelligent, tree-haunting marsupial spider-monkeys.
Australia has also one still more ancient denizen than any of these, a living fossil of the very oldest sort, a creature of wholly immemorial and primitive antiquity. The story of its discovery teems with the strangest romance of natural history. To those who could appreciate the facts of the case it was just as curious and just as interesting as though we were now to discover somewhere in an unknown island or an African oasis some surviving mammoth, some belated megatherium, or some gigantic and misshapen liassic saurian. Imagine the extinct animals of the Crystal Palace grounds suddenly appearing to our dazzled eyes in a tropical ramble, and you can faintly conceive the delight and astonishment of naturalists at large when the barramunda first ’swam into their ken’ in the rivers of Queensland. To be sure, in size and shape this ‘extinct fish,’ still living and grunting quietly in our midst, is comparatively insignificant beside the ‘dragons of the prime’ immortalised in a famous stanza by Tennyson: but, to the true enthusiast, size is nothing; and the barramunda is just as much a marvel and a monster as the Atlantosaurus himself would have been if he had suddenly walked upon the stage of time, dragging fifty feet of lizard-like tail in a train behind him. And this is the plain story of that marvellous discovery of a ‘missing link’ in our own pedigree.