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Tales from the Cryptozoologicon: BUNYIP

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Regular Tet Zoo readers (and listeners of the TetZoo podcast) will know that John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and myself are soon to publish the Cryptozoologicon, a beautifully illustrated work focusing on cryptids, the (sometimes mundane, sometimes bizarre, sometimes nonsense) creatures of the cryptozoological literature. We’re just about done and are looking to launch soon… in fact, we’ve created so much material that we’re now going to be producing TWO VOLUMES. Cryptozoologicon Vol I launches soon in 2013; Vol II will follow soon after. Stay tuned.

In previous articles I released illustrations and text from our sections on the Yeti and Megalodon (see the links below). Today: BUNYIP!

John Conway's cryptic Bunyip, from the soon-to-be-released Cryptozoologicon.

For a higher-res version of the illustration shown above, go here.

Australia is (supposedly) home to several fascinating mystery beasts, and among the most famous is the Bunyip, a water monster known to white people since the early 1800s but supposedly known since time immemorial to the Aborigines. One of the earliest published references to the Bunyip (a pamphlet published in 1812 by James Ives) – in this particular case the name was spelt Bahnuip – refers to it as a black, seal-like creature that has a terrifying voice. Accounts from later in the 1800s likened the creature to a dog-like amphibious animal or, somewhat confusingly, described it as a calf-sized, shaggy-haired or maned quadruped, sometimes seen on land but otherwise amphibious (Healy & Cropper 1994, Heuvelmans 1995). Indeed, the concept of the ‘Bunyip’ soon became so vague and amorphous that nobody today really has a clear idea of what a Bunyip is meant to look like.

Several intriguing eyewitness accounts (some from as recently as the 1940s) refer to furry, seal-like amphibious creatures vaguely corresponding to the creature described by Ives. An 1821 account provides the beast with a thick, metre-long neck and dark, hanging flaps (usually imagined to be shaggy ears) on its head while an 1872 description refers to a long-haired, glossy-coated, black ‘water dog’ that had prominent ears. Long-necked water beasts were also reported and referred to as Bunyips on occasion, and loud booming calls and bellows have also been attributed to it.

Kurruk's 1848 depiction of the Murray River Bunyip.

There are even a few pieces of Aboriginal art that are supposed to depict bunyips. An especially famous one depicted in several books (it was created in 1848 by an artist named Kurruk) shows a fat-bodied, small-headed quadruped that has slender legs and small ears. It looks like a hippo-shaped mammal of some sort. While it’s extremely interesting, it certainly doesn’t look anything like the seal-like animal or ‘water dog’ type creature referred to above, though it might be taken as a representation of the more robust ‘calf-sized’ animal mentioned in some accounts and stories.

What, if anything, is a Bunyip?

For whatever reason, there does seem to be a core of reasonably good, anatomically consistent accounts of the Bunyip, all referring to a dark-furred, dog-headed ‘seal-dog’ (to use the term favoured by Tony Healy and Paul Cropper in their classic 1994 book on Australian cryptids). Could these all be descriptions of out-of-place seals or sea lions, or large platypuses, as some zoologists have proposed? Elsewhere in the world, seals are known to have travelled up-river for 1000s of kilometres (indeed, there are land-locked, lake-dwelling seals in Asia, Europe and North America). However, the shaggy fur, dangling ears and dark pelt described in some Bunyip accounts don’t much recall any known seal, or indeed any known animal.

Diprotodon optatum skeleton; image by John O'Neill, licensed under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

Ideas that Bunyip accounts might refer to late-surviving specimens of Diprotodon (often imaged as resembling a rhino-sized wombat) or Palorchestes (a semi-bipedal, vaguely tapir-like relative of Diprotodon) (Flannery & Archer 1990, Heuvelmans 1995) don’t make much sense based on existing Bunyip descriptions. Furthermore, the notion that either animal could have survived into modern times is without evidence and not easy to take seriously.

Of course, the possibility exists that all of the accounts are hoaxes, perhaps simply copied from the earlier ones. Other suggested explanations for Bunyip sightings include sightings of big fish, crocodiles and even of the Musk duck (Biziura lobata), a big weird duck that has a huge dewlap hanging from its lower jaw.

What we do in the Cryptozoologicon

The part of our Bunyip text that I’m not releasing here concerns our fun speculative section on what the Bunyip might be if imagined as a real, undiscovered mammal. You might like to guess what sort of idea we explore. Seeing as Bunyips have essentially been reported Australia-wide, and from temperate places as much as tropical ones, they must be very good at hiding from people, and even at travelling across land, when the need arises. Both concepts are explored in John’s art shown above: it isn’t a coincidence that his erect-standing Bunyip has a tree-like quality about it.

Richard Blythe's Fabulous Beasts, 1977.

One final thing. Something we’ve done here and there throughout the Cryptozoologicon is to make deliberate nods to existing works of art. These sorts of things are sometimes in-jokes, but they sometimes have personal significance that might be, or will be, missed by other people. Did we do this sort of thing with John’s Bunyip painting show above? Yes, we did. One of my favourite monster-themed books from childhood is the wonderfully illustrated Fabulous Beasts (Blythe 1977), a compilation of monster stories from mythology, legend and fiction. The book was illustrated by Fiona French and Joanna Troughton.

While I loved that book, some bits of it scared the crap out of me. Looking at those same bits now, my fear was very much irrational, but such is the nature of childhood fear. One story – titled The Bunyip and the Black Swans of Australia – relates a tale in which some hunters bring a captured baby Bunyip back to their village. The other locals protest, for all are now surely doomed. Sure enough, the Bunyip’s mother and fellow pack members arrive in a great tidal wave, the enchanted waters making the unlucky villagers turn into black swans. Those who escape being touched by the water are carried off and devoured by angry adult Bunyips. The story didn’t bother me that much, but the illustration did — argh, terrifying, leaf-shaped doggy Bunyips! The pages featuring this illustration scared me so much (I would have been 7 years old or so) that I would skip over them when looking at the book. See for yourself… terrifying, right?

The terrifying Bunyip pages from Blythe's 1977 Fabulous Beasts. Illustration by either Fiona French or Joanna Troughton.

No, of course not. Anyway, the point is that these dog-like, shaggy-furred Bunyips were the ones we had in mind when John created the brilliant image you see above. In short, those who know Fabulous Beasts might recognise John’s version of the Bunyip as a sort of homage to the version illustrated in Blythe (1977).

For previous Tet Zoo articles on the Cryptozoologicon and on various other of the topics mentioned in this article (like diprotodontian marsupials), see…

The Cryptozoologicon – by John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish – is due out later in 2013 and will be published by Irregular Books. Follow @IrregularBooks on twitter.

Refs – -

Blythe, R. 1977. Fabulous Beasts. Macdonald Educational, London.

Flannery, T. & Archer, M. 1990. Palorchestes. Large and small palorchestids. In Rich, P. V. & van Tets, G. F. (eds) Kadimaka. Extinct Vertebrates of Australia. Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey), pp. 234-239.

Healy, T. & Cropper, P. 1994. Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia. Ironbark (Chippendale, Australia).

Heuvelmans, B. 1995. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Kegan Paul International, London.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. keesey@gmail.com 7:08 pm 10/12/2013

    I think part of any childhood fascination with cryptozoology is the strangely enjoyable fear. Apart from finding many sasquatch stories frightening, I remember in particular the hair-raising thrill of reading about the mngwa.

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  2. 2. Christopher Taylor 8:46 pm 10/12/2013

    A bunyip appears towards the end of Patricia Wrightson’s The Ice is Coming (Patricia Wrightson was an Australian children’s writer in the 1970s who wrote books about people encountering various Aboriginal spirits). While most other figures in Wrightson’s books were reasonably well defined the bunyip was not: “It was a thing of many kinds that could not be truly seen, but its red eyes were like death and its bellow was like fear. It was like a calf, like a seal, like a man; it was white, it was black. It was all these things, together and separate, in one fearful beast…It was feathered, or furred, or scaly. You could not tell what it was, except that it was dreadful.”

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  3. 3. AlHazen 12:51 am 10/13/2013

    Clearly, there are more books than good titles! One of MY favourites when I was a child was “Fabulous Beasts”… by Peter Lum! (A survey of legendary or mythical rather than cryptozoological critters, basically one chapter per “species,” though with two on dragons: one on Western Dragons and one on Eastern Dragons.)

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  4. 4. Therizinosaurus 2:45 am 10/13/2013

    I was also scared by bunyip media when I was little. Specifically, the bunyip song from the movie Dot and the Kangaroo, which can be listened to here- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtrYO-Mog60 . Do you happen to know if the cave painting the bunyip turns into at the end is a real aboriginal depiction of a bunyip?

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  5. 5. Andreas Johansson 2:57 am 10/13/2013

    I didn’t hear of the bunyip until well into adulthood, despite reading a number of cryptozoology books as a preteen.

    I’ll share another story of irrational childhood fear however: One of my father’s dino books had an illustration of some lizard-like critter with it’s open toothy gape turned straight towards the reader in the lower right corner of a spread – right where your right thumb might be when holding the book. I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that the printed thing would bite my thumb right off if I put it there, and would turn past that spread as quick as I could.

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  6. 6. BrianL 5:03 am 10/13/2013

    I remember once drawing an evil robot that I didn’t dare to look at myself anymore! I must have been about 6 or 7 at the time and was scared of a lot back then ( I blame my imagination). Come to think, that makes my liking of big dinosaurs, dating back to that same time, seem a bit masochist in retrospect.

    As for the bunyip, it doesn’t seem that feasible a cryptid at all unless shapeshifting shadowmonsters truly exist.

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  7. 7. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:10 am 10/13/2013

    BTW, does everybody know already free university courses online at Coursera.org?

    One of zillion courses is Dinosaur Biology (sp.) from University of Alberta. I saw some parts and can say, that if Darren make a similar course on say, tetrapod diversity from University of Birmingham, it would be better or at least as good. :)

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  8. 8. fer castano 6:30 am 10/13/2013

    When I was eight I was scared with the legend of Nahuelito, the local version of Nessie.

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  9. 9. Ar U. Gaetü 6:36 am 10/13/2013

    “You should never doubt what no one is sure about”
    Willy Wonka

    As children, we all needed the hope there are more places to explore, more new things to see and excite us. Imagine how boring our world would be if everything had already been found. It would be like losing an exciting scavenger hunt to someone when you had only found half of the items by then.

    The same can be said of adults. Most of us don’t possess the skills or equipment to discover bosons or planets, but our childhood imagination can be reignited when animals, long thought extinct, appear in a fisherman’s net or in the background of a photo.

    Never allow your own spirit of exploration to die. Didn’t you ever wonder were that small road went? Take it. Recharge your life, feel your inner child smile, taste living again.

    “A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”
    Willy Wonka

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  10. 10. AndreaCau 7:17 am 10/13/2013

    Hope you explored the idea of the Bunyip as a giant platypus.

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  11. 11. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:09 am 10/13/2013

    Looking forward to the book!

    BTW, Norwegian comedy “Trollhunter” has similar deadpan explanations of troll as a cryptic species. I liked especially why some trolls have three heads: they are sexual ornaments mimicking heads, designed to scare rival trolls and attract females.

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  12. 12. Jerzy v. 3.0. 9:10 am 10/13/2013

    BTW, bunyip could also work well as a giant goanna.

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  13. 13. naishd 9:21 am 10/13/2013

    Jerzy (thanks for comments)…. TrollHunter is a comedy? I’ve seen it a few times and did think so. And, re: bunyip as giant goanna. Err, a furry goanna with pinnae? I don’t think so.

    Darren

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  14. 14. naishd 10:09 am 10/13/2013

    D’OH! I meant “didn’t think so”!

    Darren

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  15. 15. vdinets 10:57 am 10/13/2013

    eared seals look very dark when wet

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  16. 16. David Marjanović 11:55 am 10/13/2013

    unless shapeshifting shadowmonsters truly exist

    Indeed, the bunyip in the pic above seems not to have a shadow…

    BTW, bunyip could also work well as a giant goanna.

    It has occasionally been proposed that Varanus priscus was aquatic. Coincidence? I think not!!!1!1!!

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  17. 17. Yodelling Cyclist 12:18 pm 10/13/2013

    Are any hallucinogenic plants or animals known from the riparian environments of Australia? Or are people going down to the water in this rather dessicated continent when so sun struck/dehydrated that they’re hallucinating? This is starting to sound awfully like a big amorphous (many odd and contradictory features) black blob that chases people when they go near water.

    Varanus priscus aquatic? Crivens, if only it had lived. We could have got cracking on breeding ourselves a mosasaur. Actually, bring on the Nile monitor – possibly a tad small, but that’s really not a huge problem. Finally a mad/deranged/twisted/ambitious, evil science project we can all enjoy…..plus it’s marginally less crazy than most cryptozoology.

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  18. 18. John Harshman 1:44 pm 10/13/2013

    Naomi Novik’s novel Tongues of Serpents prominently features bunyips, but they’re completely different from your description: more or less reptilian and highly fossorial. Don’t hold it against her; great books.

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  19. 19. Jerzy v. 3.0. 2:16 pm 10/13/2013

    @Darren
    Trollhunter? Of course, the scene with filling the official paperwork for killing a troll. Or the veterinarian who wishes she could help poor trolls.

    Re: goanna version. I think “fur” or “flaps” could be algae stuck to the head. Large goanna or a sealion swimming upriver would look precisely like bunyip.

    BTW, do wombats swim?

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  20. 20. naishd 4:14 pm 10/13/2013

    Jerzy: I can agree that TrollHunter is a parody of sorts, but would you really call it a ‘comedy’? I don’t know.

    As for goannas as Bunyips… I dislike this sort of explanation (no offence), not because I think that Bunyips are real, but because what you’ve just proposed is discordant with reports. Swimming goannas do not really get algae-covered – they’re active animals that sun and groom themselves, not sessile ones (like the turtles and snakes that get covered in algae). Can you prove me wrong? And furry, long-haired, dog-like animals with ear flaps sound like mammals, not like varanids.

    Darren

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  21. 21. naishd 4:15 pm 10/13/2013

    Oh — as for swimming wombats… yes, they can do it, and they’re pretty good at it. Lots of photos and videos online.

    Darren

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  22. 22. Heteromeles 5:25 pm 10/13/2013

    Glad to know I wasn’t the only one who read Patricia Wrightson’s books as a child. They are wonderful fun, although I suppose they’re all out of print now. I even tried drawing that bunyip she describes.

    Personally, I tend to think sea lion when I see the description of a bunyip, but I suspect the real explanation for bunyips is the same as for dragons all over the world: they’re the ancient equivalent of “danger: keep out” signs, sometimes backed by a few fossil bones. Saying there’s a dragon or other dread beastie in a river ain’t stupid, if a combination of crocodiles, snags, rapids, and/or swift currents mean that people regularly die there. Getting the taxonomy right is less important than promulgating the “keep out” message. Even crazy things like the original chimera work pretty well in this regard: it may have been the spirit of volcanic Mount Chimaera, so the combination of goat (the smell), lion, and fire-breathing serpent actually makes a lot of sense, if you’re trying to describe what the experience is like, and why someone else really shouldn’t spend time there.

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  23. 23. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:13 pm 10/13/2013

    I thought that an animal can emerge briefly, covered with weeds. I think all actual observations of bunyips were brief.

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  24. 24. WarrenJB 8:48 pm 10/13/2013

    Nice piece of art! Looks like something between an otter and a seal at first glance. (with slightly horsey snout) I’m not seeing much dog in it, but that doesn’t detract.

    Regarding the earlier art being homaged: I can well imagine that looking creepy to a kid. Disregarding the friendly (ish) muppetlike faces, the body shape is weird and unearthly. Not even like a seal – the closest thing I can think of is a cross between some kind of fluke, and Cousin It. And then there’s the elemental, unstoppable transformative powers. Or maybe that’s just me.
    In any case it’s all combining to remind me of the animated short “Skywhales”, so it’s starting to unsettle me too.

    On the general topic of cryptids, I’d be much interested to hear your eventual thoughts on C4′s Bigfoot programme, airing next week.

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  25. 25. Anthea Fleming 5:51 am 10/14/2013

    The Bunyip is a Prohibitory Monster – something used to frighten children and uninitiated persons from doing something dangerous, i.e. straying away from the camp-fire and family circle, and maybe falling into water in the dark; or from approaching sacred or taboo places. I believe that sea-lions or fur-seals straying a long way up-river have contributed to the story, as well as the weird display behaviour of the male Musk-duck.
    I don’t think I have heard of Bunyips in northern Australia, where they have the very real danger of man-eating Crocodiles.
    Kathleen Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies (Penguin) contains many stories of British water-beings used to frighten children into staying clear of streams and lakes.

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  26. 26. David Marjanović 11:30 am 10/14/2013

    Haven’t leopard seals been sighted pretty far upstream in Australian rivers?

    Finally a mad/deranged/twisted/ambitious, evil science project we can all enjoy…

    I’m in. *rubbing hands while grinning evilly* Let’s start to write the grant proposal.

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  27. 27. Perisoreus 11:45 am 10/14/2013

    I remember a similar feeling that I had when reading a fairytale book of my mother’s. It’s a compilation of mostly British and Irish lore translated into German, but also including the Australian tale of the Bunyip. In the text, it was characterised as a black sea cow with red eyes; however the illustrator depicted it as a strange chimera somewhere in between a cow and a manatee. I still have the pictures of the hunters in my head, running from the mother with the calf on their backs, and soon after the village being drowned and all the people being turned into black cranes.

    I highly recommend that book to anyone interested in that kind of lore; it’s written and illustrated in black and white by Helga Gebert and still one of the best fairytale anthologies in German that I’ve come across.

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  28. 28. Dartian 12:23 pm 10/14/2013

    David:
    Haven’t leopard seals been sighted pretty far upstream in Australian rivers?

    A leopard seal was captured near the mouth of the Shoalhaven River near Sydney in 1859. However, in its stomach there was supposedly a platypus – which, if this account is correct, would mean that the seal had prior to its capture swam at least some distance upriver.

    That information is from Ellis Troughton’s classic volume Furred Animals of Australia (first published in 1941 but reprinted many times – my own copy is from 1965). In the book’s pinniped chapter, Troughton devotes almost an entire page(!) to the bunyip legend. He favours the idea that most bunyip sightings are actually sightings of various extralimital seal species.

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  29. 29. John Scanlon FCD 2:14 pm 10/14/2013

    The Bunyip is a Prohibitory Monster – something used to frighten children and uninitiated persons from doing something dangerous

    In this respect, and in being a water monster, it’s the counterpart of Rainbow Serpents in the rest of the country. Years ago I compiled a list of names of serpents and other water monsters from various sources and parts of Australia, which often appear to group together (based on Roman spellings, not any detailed linguistic knowledge) in families of plausible cognates. For example: Bolung and Yurlunggur in Arnhem Land (top end NT) and Ungud in the Kimberley (north WA); Wana and Wanampi in the central and western deserts (SA, WA, NT); Tchooroo, Kakuru and Arkaroo near the Flinders Ranges (SA) and Kurrea in north-west NSW; Bunyip and Myndie from the lower Murray (Vic/SA), Wawi and Yowie on the NSW side of the Murray and Darling. In some, but certainly not all of these the RS is identified as the supreme creator, while other attributes (e.g. distinctive ears or beard, water-dwelling, punishment of transgressors, swallowing and regurgitation) are fairly constant. Generally the stories about these beings (that are available to us, children and the uninitiated) are versions filtered through translation and retelling and reimagining, stripped of geographical and calendrical burden, or fictionalised as narratives of recent events; ‘authoritative’, ‘authentic’, ‘original’ versions may or may not exist. (Some ‘inner’ versions may have been at least partly published or passed on by initiates e.g. some of the stuff David Attenborough was told when a guest of the Ngolyu, including the name Yurlunggur, are apparently supposed to be secret, but that cat’s out of the bag.) So I presume the Bunyip and Yowie are local versions of one ancestral cultural entity represented all over the continent, which I suggest should be traced back to cobra-worship in Asia and Africa.

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  30. 30. Laurence Clark Crossen 2:36 pm 10/14/2013

    Otto Neugebauer, the famous historian of astronomy, felt it necessary to justify his involvement in studying ancient astrology by writing an article in Isis entitled, “The Study of Wretched Subjects.” How would you justify your involvement in the wretched subject of cryptozoology?

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  31. 31. Heteromeles 3:07 pm 10/14/2013

    @39: Say what? AFAIK, the Aborigines were in Australia back around 40,000 years ago. You’re saying that these intelligent people, surrounded by an enormous plethora of elapids and pythons, weren’t perfectly capable of coming up with their own myths? Wow, that’s like anthropological dispersalism straight out of the 1930s.

    Here’s a rather more modern take: The Dreaming is equivalent to a set of memory palaces, or more accurately the method of loci, that encodes survival and cultural information in a set of myths hung about with “sticky” images like the Rainbow Serpent to make it easy to remember what to do, when, and where, in order to live a good life and not, oh, starve or get eaten by a salty. The dreamlines are the safe passages between regions, and one reason they cross languages and tribes is because the aborigines did too. Having a place to go and friends to visit is essential if you live in as unpredictable an environment as the Outback, and the shared myths and ceremonies facilitated making friends along the Lines. Aside from the main dreamlines, there were local patterns that only the locals knew, for their particular territory.

    A lot of Australian myths don’t make a lot of sense because we’re not in the land where they were spoken and performed. If we were there, I suspect the stories would make a lot more sense.

    Incidentally, this is one reason why removing a tribe to a reservation is an effective way to kill them as an independent people. Taking them away from the land where their myths have any meaning is a form of cultural genocide, if their religion is a memory palace encoded in their home turf.

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  32. 32. Halbred 4:33 pm 10/14/2013

    I love Trollhunter. The comedic elements have become more pronounced each time I watch it. I’m especially fond of the fact that their new camera operator is Islamic, and none of them really know if Trolls will be aggressive towards her or not, since she’s NOT Christian but she DOES believe in God…

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  33. 33. Laurence Clark Crossen 5:31 pm 10/14/2013

    Comment #30 should have been addressed to Darren Naish.

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  34. 34. SciaticPain 9:52 pm 10/14/2013

    You guys have got it all wrong. The Bunyip is obviously a relict population of Castoroides, the giant Pleistocene beaver, that travelled through a wormhole in space-time. Just kidding… but it got me thinking modern beaver are aquatic, can stand bipedally, are furry and have ears, and are fairly secretive and cryptic. Anybody come across stories of escaped beaver in Australia? Catching a glimpse of one of these fairly large rodents at dusk in an area you don’t expect them to be could keep the legend going.

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  35. 35. David Marjanović 7:03 am 10/15/2013

    A leopard seal was captured near the mouth of the Shoalhaven River near Sydney in 1859. However, in its stomach there was supposedly a platypus –

    That’s what I’m thinking of: “clearly a bunyip within a bunyip”!

    Some ‘inner’ versions may have been at least partly published or passed on by initiates e.g. some of the stuff David Attenborough was told when a guest of the Ngolyu, including the name Yurlunggur, are apparently supposed to be secret

    Ouch.

    which I suggest should be traced back to cobra-worship in Asia and Africa.

    Interesting.

    Say what? AFAIK, the Aborigines were in Australia back around 40,000 years ago. You’re saying that these intelligent people, surrounded by an enormous plethora of elapids and pythons, weren’t perfectly capable of coming up with their own myths?

    Who ever comes up with a completely new myth ex nihilo? Most, if not all, are based on older stories and contain older tropes or their deliberate inversions.

    Tracing such things over several tens of thousands of years has got to be difficult, though.

    How would you justify your involvement in the wretched subject of cryptozoology?

    There’s a post on Tet Zoo version 2 titled “Monster hunting? Well, no. No.”

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  36. 36. David Marjanović 7:07 am 10/15/2013

    Also, most Australian languages belong to the Pama–Nyungan family, and “Proto-Pama–Nyungan may have been spoken as recently as about 5,000 years ago, much more recently than the 40,000 to 60,000 years Indigenous Australians are believed to have been inhabiting Australia. How the Pama–Nyungan languages spread over most of the continent and displaced any pre-Pama–Nyungan languages is uncertain; one possibility is that language could have been transferred from one group to another alongside culture and ritual.” (two references)

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  37. 37. Heteromeles 11:57 am 10/15/2013

    @David: Do realize the meme that “Everything traced back to India” is connected to a certain discredited school of anthropology that believed, very strongly, that the Aryan race of India was the source of all civilization. They lost a lot of credit during WW2, for what should be bloody obvious reasons. I do hope you’re not promulgating their ideology.

    As for the idea that “this dry river channel looks like it was carved by a giant snake. Hmmmm,” I seriously doubt that this is such an obscure and non-obvious idea that people couldn’t come up with it themselves, especially when they’re living in such a snake-rich part of the world. It also has the benefit that, once you associate said dry riverbed with the rain, lightning, and rainbows associated with the rainbow serpent, you stay away from his favorite trackways (the dry riverbeds) so that you don’t encounter him in the form of a flash flood.

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  38. 38. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:13 pm 10/15/2013

    Anybody knows a book where fantastic animals were analyzed as myths, that is what motifs or virtues they mean in general?

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  39. 39. vdinets 11:53 pm 10/15/2013

    There was a Russian historian, Rybakov, who claimed that certain folk monster tales could be traced to Neolithic descriptions of real mammoths. The idea was never universally accepted or universally rejected, but some of his examples were kinda convincing. If true, that would show how persistent can myths be sometimes.

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  40. 40. darkgabi 6:21 am 10/16/2013

    i had never heard of it… doesn’t seem scary, but well, shouldn’t be rational anways.

    and talking about being scared as a child, the story of the “headless mule” in the brazilian folklore always gave me shivers. the version i was told, a queen used to go to the cemetery to eat corpses out of their graves, especially the head, and was turned into a headless mule when caught by the king. it was as if i could hear her scream in a cold night as she transformed.

    and also a series of halloween- or alike-themed cartoons that i watched a couple of times with my sis [i thought it was disney's scary tales, but i'm not entirely sure]. particularly, the story of the headless horseman. maybe i have an issue with decapitation. brrrrr!

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  41. 41. Dartian 7:42 am 10/16/2013

    Heteromeles:
    I do hope you’re not promulgating their ideology.

    Dude, that was going overboard. We’re approaching Godwin’s Law territory – let’s not go there, okay?

    Link to this
  42. 42. David Marjanović 11:10 am 10/16/2013

    @David: Do realize the meme that “Everything traced back to India” is connected to

    What?

    Who even mentioned India???

    Besides, people calling themselves Aryans only showed up in India some 3500 years ago, less than a tenth of the time frame needed for any connection to Australia.

    As for the idea that “this dry river channel looks like it was carved by a giant snake. Hmmmm,” I seriously doubt that this is such an obscure and non-obvious idea that people couldn’t come up with it themselves

    So do I. That wasn’t what anyone was talking about.

    the story of the “headless mule” in the brazilian folklore

    Kings and queens in Brazil?

    Link to this
  43. 43. Heteromeles 2:01 pm 10/16/2013

    I do realize it’s Godwin’s Law territory, but the starting point was John Scanlon’s comment that the Rainbow Serpent traces back to cobra worship in India. If you chase those roots down (and I have, somewhat), it gets kind of creepy back there in the 1920s and 1930s, folklore-wise. Folklore and ethnography were once used to support a lot of highly charged political ideas in ways that have probably warped those fields to this day.

    So yes, I totally agree that tracing the Australian Rainbow Serpents from their origin Aryan nagas makes no sense time-wise. Absolutely. But it’s also problematic to say that “Who ever comes up with a completely new myth ex nihilo? Most, if not all, are based on older stories and contain older tropes or their deliberate inversion,” because there’s an echo of an ugly past in that apparently innocent assertion. That past included the mistaken ideas that aborigines were frozen in time, relicts of an otherwise long-dead past, who hadn’t invented anything but merely copied still older ideas from their Eurasian progenitors, who had since “evolved.” These primitives should be either exterminated or protected in reserves, due to their inherent inability to adapt to the modern world. None of this is true, of course, but it has led to a lot of dark history for the aborigines.

    The whole point of linking the Rainbow Serpent with flash floods and the terrain they leave behind is to show that an observant person could create a myth that has a lot of survival value in the context of a particular landscape, even though it looks charmingly bizarre and quaint in a children’s book of myths of the world. This story, true or not, at least gives the aborigines more credit than dispersalist theories of their folklore do.

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  44. 44. Scottishwildlifewatcher 5:15 pm 10/16/2013

    I was listening to the podcast and as you were mentioning metatherians and how it had something to do with the Cryptozoologicon, is the bunyip a marsupial seal analogue by any chance? Cant wait for the book!

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  45. 45. Christopher Taylor 7:12 pm 10/16/2013

    is the bunyip a marsupial seal analogue by any chance?

    I think it may have been brought up on this site before, but there’s some fairly big hurdles in the way of truly aquatic marsupials. Primarily, the issue of taking a pouch full of joey(s) into the water and not having them drown.

    The South American yapok is the only marsupial (AFAIK) that spends a large part of its time in the water. Yapoks can close their pouch up tight, and the young are even able to tolerate brief exposure to low oxygen levels. Nevertheless, yapoks are still quite limited in just how much time they can spend submerged.

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  46. 46. Yodelling Cyclist 7:15 pm 10/16/2013

    kings and queens in Brazil?

    Dude, it used to be an empire….

    Link to this
  47. 47. Dartian 3:03 am 10/17/2013

    Yodelling Cyclist:
    Dude, it used to be an empire

    I’m pretty sure that he knew that. We just had the privilege of witnessing a rare lapse of memory by David M. :)

    Link to this
  48. 48. naishd 4:24 am 10/17/2013

    Thanks for great comments. re: comment # 30 (“How would you justify your involvement in the wretched subject of cryptozoology?”). It’s a good point – getting involved in cryptozoology is generally a bad idea. However, I’ve written about this fairly extensively here at Tet Zoo and the easiest thing is to direct you to this article.

    As for the evolution of bunyips (comment # 45), we can of course do all sorts of fun things with speculative evolution. Even in the real world, there are marsupials with substantially reduced (many dasyurids) or absent pouches (some didelphids)… More on this in the Cryptozoologicon!

    Darren

    Link to this
  49. 49. naishd 4:28 am 10/17/2013

    Oh, great. All comments are in italics now?

    Darren

    Link to this
  50. 50. Christopher Taylor 4:58 am 10/17/2013

    Perhaps this will fix it.

    Link to this
  51. 51. Christopher Taylor 4:58 am 10/17/2013

    Or maybe not.

    Link to this
  52. 52. darkgabi 4:59 am 10/17/2013

    @david

    well, before getting our independence and becoming an empire and having an emperor, as pointed by the yodelling cyclist, we were part of the kingdom of portugal and their king was our king.

    it seems the legend was imported anyways, so it makes sense to have a queen and a king. plus, since we have a lot of european influence, i wouldn’t be surprised if some truly brazilian legends were modified by that and things like “cacique” were changed to “king” – also because i was told the story, didn’t read it, what makes it even more susceptible to these influences.

    there are other examples: saci is originally indigenous, but nowadays it is seen as a black boy. we’re a mix =]

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  53. 53. David Marjanović 6:18 am 10/17/2013

    the starting point was John Scanlon’s comment that the Rainbow Serpent traces back to cobra worship in India

    Scroll up, and you’ll find him saying “Asia and Africa”, nothing as specific as India!

    their Eurasian progenitors, who had since “evolved.”

    No. Those haven’t come up with “a completely new myth ex nihilo” either.

    Dude, it used to be an empire….

    I know. In the late 19th century it had an emperor and an empress. That’s not much time for a legend featuring a queen and a king to emerge.

    Link to this
  54. 54. David Marjanović 6:19 am 10/17/2013

    Test. Further test.

    Link to this
  55. 55. David Marjanović 6:19 am 10/17/2013

    So, putting </i> tags anywhere in a comment doesn’t help. :-(

    Link to this
  56. 56. Gigantala 2:00 pm 10/17/2013

    @Aquatic metatherians: One word: Stagodontia. It’s pretty clear now that they were otter-like animals.

    Combined with aquatic cimolestoids (now considered to be non-placental eutherians, and thus probably not that different from marsupials in terms of reproduction), and some other aquatic metatherians I’ve seen mentioned here and there, it seems pretty obvious that marsupials can in fact produce at least semi-aquatic forms, if not regularly.

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  57. 57. Yodelling Cyclist 5:01 pm 10/17/2013

    I would point out that the concept of European kings and queens has been present in Brazil for at least as long as mules…

    Two examples of otter like marsupials is a bit unimpressive compares with, say, seals.

    Testing bold: does this work And this.

    Link to this
  58. 58. Yodelling Cyclist 5:01 pm 10/17/2013

    Oh great we may now be stuck with bold.

    Link to this
  59. 59. Yodelling Cyclist 5:02 pm 10/17/2013

    …or not

    Link to this
  60. 60. Heteromeles 5:41 pm 10/17/2013

    Oh dear, mention Godwin’s Law and we get italicized? That’s too much.

    Oh well, here’s my pointless experimentation:

    one
    two
    three
    four

    Link to this
  61. 61. David Marjanović 7:53 pm 10/17/2013

    Just to make sure everything has been tested about 3 times.

    “@Aquatic metatherians: One word: Stagodontia. It’s pretty clear now that they were otter-like animals.”

    The evidence is actually quite weak; it rests on isolated tail vertebrae assigned to jaw fragments of fitting size found, IIRC, in the same sites. There’s just no evidence to the contrary.

    “Combined with aquatic cimolestoids”

    Cimolesta as imagined by McKenna & Bell (1975) in their classification of mammals appears to be a heap of bullshit; however, most of its members have never been included in a phylogenetic analysis.

    “I would point out that the concept of European kings and queens has been present in Brazil for at least as long as mules…”

    Indeed!

    Link to this
  62. 62. naishd 7:57 pm 10/17/2013

    I’m pretty sure there’s an article by Greg Wilson where he contests the hypothesis that stagodontids were at all otter-like (at the time, most vehemently promoted by Nick Longrich). However, this was probably before Wilson and others got to work on the new apparently otter-like good Didelphodon skeleton now known.

    And I have no idea what’s going on with the italics. I wonder if it’s a SciAm-wide thing.

    Darren

    Link to this
  63. 63. naishd 8:04 pm 10/17/2013

    HA!! Turns out someone (I won’t say who) didn’t close a tag properly, and that screwed all formatting downstream. How weird (and lame).

    Darren

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  64. 64. Yodelling Cyclist 8:20 pm 10/17/2013

    That, presumably, was me. Apologies.

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  65. 65. Dartian 1:27 am 10/18/2013

    Heteromeles:
    Oh dear, mention Godwin’s Law and we get italicized?

    Hitler disliked the Fraktur script (a.k.a. the ‘Gothic’ script) that had traditionally been used in Germany; so much so, in fact, that he ordered it to be phased out from printed materials and replaced with Latin script. I don’t know how he felt about italics, though…

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  66. 66. Dartian 2:57 am 10/18/2013

    David:
    McKenna & Bell (1975)

    Don’t you mean 1997?

    Link to this
  67. 67. David Marjanović 11:20 am 10/18/2013

    Oh, wow! I signed in, and the extra italics disappeared! :-)

    the new apparently otter-like good Didelphodon skeleton now known

    Oh. Is there a reference yet?

    so much so, in fact, that he ordered it to be phased out from printed materials and replaced with Latin script.

    Yep. Just to stay in character, he credited a Jew with (basically) the invention of blackletter. The phasing-out began in 1941, but didn’t get far till the war was over (and even then it took Switzerland several more years to follow suit).

    Don’t you mean 1997?

    …I do. What is the ’75 book I’m thinking about, then? ~:-|

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  68. 68. Gigantala 2:52 pm 10/18/2013

    Two examples of otter like marsupials is a bit unimpressive compares with, say, seals.

    And the number of placentals that managed to get into “seal level” is very small. This is almost certainly due to lack of availiable niches, not genuine impossibility.

    @Stagodonts: Yeah, Greg Wilson’s article is inconsistent with the new Didelphodon specimen, which appearently has converged strongly with Enhydra otters.

    Link to this
  69. 69. Laurence Clark Crossen 4:48 pm 10/18/2013

    @re: naishd: comment#48:
    I agree that it is better to consider this subject the more speculative part of zoology. Unfortunately, very often one finds that the subject is defined a priori as pseudoscience so that any argument in favor of it is already wrong. This is largely due to people who want to fallacy hunt to teach people the ABC’s of science.

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  70. 70. Yodelling Cyclist 6:09 pm 10/18/2013

    And the number of placentals that managed to get into “seal level” is very small. This is almost certainly due to lack of availiable niches, not genuine impossibility

    Well, there’s otters, seals, desmans, otter tenrecs, thalassocnus, sirenians, cetaceans, beavers, capybara, coypu, water voles, hippotamus, giant otter shrews and probably quite a few more that I can’t think of/haven’t been found. Lining up for the marsupials, we have the yapok, possibly didelphodon, the lutrine opossum’s a good swimmer (but a mother carrying young could plausibly survive without swimming for food) and that seems to be it….

    Sure, it is possible for marsupials to become aquatic, but the barriers inhibiting such a development seem to be high – it is rare that a marsupial lineage develops the necessary autapomorphies for an aquatic lifestyle to become habitual, as a precursor for these traits to become selected for, let alone probe the highly derived morphospace occupied by (say) pinnipeds or cetaceans.

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  71. 71. Gigantala 8:00 pm 10/18/2013

    I don’t think we can for the moment judge fairly, considering A) metatherians have had relatively little ecological space for an aquatic existence, both in the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic, and B) whenever metatherians do have that, they seem to do more or less as well as placentals, with Didelphodon being a metatherian sea otter, the yapok lineage spanning several extinct members, and extinct aquatic metatherians in Australia which I only know about by hearsay.

    Link to this
  72. 72. Yodelling Cyclist 9:45 pm 10/18/2013

    With respect, I disagree. I accept that marsupials are limited in their distribution compared with eutheria, but Australia and South America (with limited penetration of North America) does not constitute a radically constrained ecospace. Certainly these continents are not famed for their short coast lines. In addition, for much of their evolutionary history marsupials occupied What was Laurasia, and indeed Antarctica, further space for a successful aquatic marsupial lineage to originate and disperse. This is not so much a question of can a marsupial become aquatic, clearly this is possible, the question is really how easy, or how readily can a”stock” marsupial lineage go aquatic, as compared with a comparable eutherian?

    I tend to think of these things from a chemistry perspective. When considering a reaction rate, one has to take into account the concentration of a chemical species, the activation energy, and an “attempt rate” which broadly speaking encompasses how many times the molecules are going to bang into each other per unit time (it’s more subtle than that). Transferring to zoology, concentration finds a crude proxy in the number of lineages present (I am deliberately being vague here, I’m trying to describe the number of genetically and morphologically discrete animal groups as they wend their way through time, without stating a debate about the concept of species, genera etc.), activation energy encompasses some kind of idea of how “hard” it is for autapomorphies to arise which can be exadapted to permit new behaviour and occupation of new niches, and attempt frequency correlates not just to generational turnover but also rate at which animals try new behaviours per unit time. After all that twaddle, it boils down to this: their have been plenty of marsupial lineages, plenty of opportunities for aquatic marsupials to arise, but there are far fewer aquatic marsupials. It’s just “hard” for them to adapt, possibly it’s simply very rare for mutations required to seal the pouch to arise – and those lines like bandicoots where this would be less of a problem are just so rare they haven’t staged many attempts at the water.

    Btw, what was the fauna of Australia like in the early Paleocene? I seem to recall that marsupials aren’t known from Aus until~50 MYA, so what was running the show? Am I missing more whacking great tortoises?

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  73. 73. Gigantala 10:40 am 10/19/2013

    When there are things like monotremates and, in Laurasia, choristoderes, hogging aquatic tetrapod niches, there’s much less room. The same happened with therapsids and temnospondyls.

    Link to this
  74. 74. Yodelling Cyclist 2:03 pm 10/19/2013

    True, there is competition, but the aquatic eutherians are/were hardly without competition. Globally several otter species coexist with a variety of crocadilians, and with coypu and/or capybara in places; desmans, water voles and otters manage to coexist in northern Europe. Australia seems to have just the one aquatic mammal (the platypus) and all the marine mammals are of course eutherian. So I’d question much less room.

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  75. 75. Yodelling Cyclist 3:18 pm 10/19/2013

    Ultimately, this requires a certain amount of numerical rigour, but until and unless one adopts a genuinely “countable” species/genus concept that is very difficult – especially since such a concept would have to encompass both fossil and extant species. It would further be difficult to control for such factors as “ecospace” and access to water.

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  76. 76. LeeB 1 6:28 pm 10/19/2013

    Actually Australia also has an aquatic (placental) water rat.
    And rodents haven’t been in Australia that long geologically speaking.

    So the niche was available but placentals rather than marsupials occupied it.

    Hmmm.

    LeeB.

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  77. 77. Yodelling Cyclist 6:57 pm 10/19/2013

    That’s fairly damning.

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  78. 78. David Marjanović 7:45 pm 10/19/2013

    with Didelphodon being a metatherian sea otter

    (Without a sea, though.)

    Btw, what was the fauna of Australia like in the early Paleocene?

    Nobody knows. There is no known early or middle Paleocene terrestrial site in Australia. There is nothing known in the Cenozoic that’s older than Murgon.

    Link to this
  79. 79. Yodelling Cyclist 8:51 pm 10/19/2013

    Nobody knows. There is no known early or middle Paleocene terrestrial site in Australia. There is nothing known in the Cenozoic that’s older than Murgon.

    Ah, secret time travellers’ hang out then, must be.

    Semi-serious mode activated, what about Antarctica? (Where one can get to the rocks).

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  80. 80. Gigantala 8:54 pm 10/19/2013

    Australia has had several extinct aquatic monotremates however – the group is almost ancestrally aquatic to begin with -, and the water rat is a rather recent phenomenon.

    The current dry state of the continent also makes things harder. And, again, this is not taking into consideration mekosuchines and musk ducks.

    @David: I meant ecologically, based on the convergences. Didelphodon was probably a freshwater animal, but since it already exhibited that degree of adaptations to an aquatic existence and molluscivorous teeth to boot…

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  81. 81. Yodelling Cyclist 9:28 pm 10/19/2013

    Australia has had several extinct aquatic monotremates however – the group is almost ancestrally aquatic to begin with -, and the water rat is a rather recent phenomenon.

    Gigantala: Care to expand on the extinct aquatic monotremes for those of us in the cheap seats (also, thank you for taking the time to discuss all this, despite my disagreeing with you I’m enjoying the discussion)?

    I stand by my previous comments, there’s no great shortage of water fowl or crocs in South America, tropical Africa or South Asia, and there are plenty of aquatic, and marine, mammals.

    The current dry state of the continent also makes things harder.

    Well, why limit ourselves to Aus? Yapok aside, the waterways of South and North America are hardly bustling with marsupials.

    Link to this
  82. 82. Dartian 3:02 am 10/20/2013

    Gigantala:
    the yapok lineage spanning several extinct members

    What? Didn’t know that. Reference, please.

    Link to this
  83. 83. BrianL 5:07 am 10/20/2013

    @Yodelling Cyclist:
    If I’m not mistaken, the known Cenozoic fossil record of Antarctica does not go into the Paleocene either. The early Eocene fauna however is somewhat known and appears to be very South American in nature. It includes astrapotheres, ground sloths, didelphomorphs and notoungulates plus gondwanatheres on the mammal side of things. It might well have included monotremes as well, as Paleocene *Monotrematum* is known from South America. All in all, this fauna mostly underlines that Antarctica and South America were connected at the time and that only a select few mammals were able to pass between them and Australia. That is, unless Paleocene/Eocene Australia harboured a very South American fauna that quickly went extinct.

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  84. 84. Yodelling Cyclist 11:16 am 10/20/2013

    Thank you BrianL. Well, australidelphians managed to transfer to Aus, so one can imagine that something else made the hop. Are there any sources for the non specialist on this?

    Antarctic ground sloths. Wow.

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  85. 85. BrianL 9:08 am 10/21/2013

    Well, bats are known from early Eocene Australia so they made it into Australia back then. Then there’s *Tingamarra*, traditionally considered a possible ‘condylarth’. What it really is, is anyone’s guess though.

    To me it would seem that the Antarctica/Australia connection was a terrestrial one (it makes the immigration of australidelphians more likely) but that it only existed for a very short period in the Paleocene. Monotremes and marsupials crossed but placentals didn’t (unless, *Tingamarra*…). Bats likely crossed by flight anyway.
    This seems more parsimonious to me than assuming others crossed but went extinct shortly afterwards.

    As for sources, well, most of my knowledge comes from years of scrounging the internet, reading Tet Zoo religiously since 2006 and the occassional book. I’m not an expert or even professionally active in (paleo)zoology either.

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  86. 86. David Marjanović 12:51 pm 10/22/2013

    To me it would seem that the Antarctica/Australia connection was a terrestrial one (it makes the immigration of australidelphians more likely) but that it only existed for a very short period in the Paleocene.

    I think the connection was there all the time, but it was much more usable during the PETM and the following early Eocene thermal maximum.

    Link to this
  87. 87. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:02 am 10/29/2013

    Curious. I guess connection between Antarctica and Australia was a narrow sea channel. Australodidelphians crossed by rafting. Otherwise sloths and all larger Antarctic fauna would spread to Australia.

    Link to this
  88. 88. John Scanlon FCD 12:57 am 10/31/2013

    Antarctica and South America were connected at the time and that only a select few mammals were able to pass between them and Australia. That is, unless Paleocene/Eocene Australia harboured a very South American fauna that quickly went extinct.
    The Murgon fauna is particularly South American in the mammals and of course the snakes, but we know hardly anything else about the Paleogene terrestrial fauna until the very late Oligocene. There ought to be in intensive and systematic search for similar deposits under all the basalt flows of the eastern Australian volcanic hotspots, which have been tracking southward (relative to the continental surface) through the whole Cenozoic; there are a few Pliocene and Pleistocene examples known (Hamilton, Bluff Downs, Wyandotte), but no other early ones.
    I recently read Wallace’s Island Life which I found remarkably modern and exciting (compared with Darwin or The Malay Archipelago, though they’re also good); one of the things he talks about is why Australian and New Zealand flora and fauna are so different, and puts great importance on the (then) recent discovery that until relatively recently, Australia used to be split into eastern and western islands by epicontinental seas. This is a reminder that if Murgon’s fauna is rather South-American-like, how much more so was the fauna of the western shield? – of which we know nothing at all directly.

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  89. 89. Christopher Taylor 2:18 am 11/4/2013

    This is a reminder that if Murgon’s fauna is rather South-American-like, how much more so was the fauna of the western shield?

    I’ve always had the impression that the connection to Antarctica was mostly through the eastern side of Australia. If that was the case, then eastern Australia may have been more South Americany than the west. Or am I wrong about the connection?

    Link to this
  90. 90. David Marjanović 4:11 pm 11/5/2013

    I guess connection between Antarctica and Australia was a narrow sea channel.

    There’s supposed to have been a land connection up until 45 Ma ago. And yes, it’s thought to have been in the east, involving Tasmania.

    Link to this
  91. 91. John Scanlon FCD 4:53 am 11/19/2013

    Another potential bunyip: giant, toothed Miocene platypus!

    I did the acid prep that produced the only known tooth of this thing, but as they’re rather rare I missed the fact that it’s twice the size of any previously known specimen. (There were various distractions that year, including lovely small madtsoiid and elapid bones coming out of the same deposit, not to mention the turtles, fish and other mammals, plus looking for another job…)

    Link to this

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