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Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Tales from the Cryptozoologicon: BUNYIP

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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.

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

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