How The Bunyip Went Extinct – The Bristol Dinosaur Venture Weblog

Visitor Writer: Dr Rachel Kruft Welton
Present Palaeobiology MSc Pupil

Australia has all kinds of harmful and venomous creatures. Half the wildlife, it appears, is out to get you. You’ll have thought, that with the spiders, scorpions, snakes, sharks, blue-ringed octopuses, hungry crocodiles and biting flies, it might be pointless to invent a mythological creature intent on devouring people. Nevertheless, Indigenous Australians have lengthy described a lethal water-spirit referred to as a ‘Bunyip’. This nocturnal creature resembles a big seal-like canine, about 2 metres lengthy with a darkish shaggy coat. It inhabits river margins and swampy areas, the place it lays eggs in platypus nests. In some tales it likes to munch on crayfish, and in others, it prefers human youngsters.

Fig 1. Wellington Cave, New South Wales. Forged of fossil Diprotodon.

Sightings of the bunyip owe a lot to the creativeness of the individual reporting the incident, however bones are tougher to dismiss, and finds of huge bones had been sometimes attributed to the bunyip. One such discover was in a cave close to Wellington, New South Wales, within the early 1830s (Fig 1). The bone deposits had been found by an area referred to as George Ranken, who drew them to the eye of Main Thomas Mitchell (Dawson, 1985). Mitchell’s collections ended up in London, and in 1938 they had been recognized by Sir Richard Owen and named Diprotodon optatum.

Diprotodon is known as for its two protruding entrance tooth, which sprouted from a sturdy cranium. So as to add to the lovable goofiness, it had toes that turned inwards (Musser 2019). Its closest dwelling kinfolk are wombats and koalas, and it’s affectionately misnamed the Big Wombat. It was, nevertheless, considerably bigger than any marsupial dwelling at this time, and cuddly, it was not. It was the biggest marsupial ever to have lived, topping two metres on the shoulder and practically 4 metres in size. It was the dimensions of a hippopotamus, and lived in small familial herds. Comparability of carbon isotopes signifies that herds migrated over 200 km yearly (Worth et al., 2017), in rhythm with the seasons. They’d highly effective jaws, able to consuming powerful vegetation and most popular dry savannahs to dense forests.

Diprotodon advanced round 2 million years in the past within the early Pleistocene, simply because the local weather was beginning to cool considerably. By 150,000 years in the past climate patterns had been altering and the land was turning into extra arid (Kaars et al, 2017). After which, round 45,000 years in the past, people arrived.

Fig 2. Diprotodon rock artwork. Bednarik (2013)

The earliest people coexisted with Diprotodon for the briefest of time. Rock artwork (Fig 2) displaying what could possibly be Diprotodon has been present in a number of localities (e.g. Cape York Peninsula), though two of those (Yunta Springs and Wilkindinna) are representations of tracks reasonably than the animals themselves, and plenty of have now been degraded and exfoliated by the passage of time. Bednarik (2013) stays unconvinced that these depict Diprotodon, as “These taxons are all deemed to have turn out to be extinct effectively earlier than 40 ka in the past.”

People, it needs to be stated, should not have a very good observe report in terms of shepherding the biodiversity of our planet. The Pleistocene megafauna (creatures over 45 kg) began dropping like flies as quickly as people set foot on every continent.

“The primary hints of irregular charges of megafaunal loss seem earlier, within the Early Pleistocene in Africa round 1 Mya, the place there was a pronounced discount in African proboscidean range and the lack of a number of carnivore lineages, together with sabretooth cats, which continued to flourish on different continents. Their extirpation in Africa is probably going associated to Homo erectus evolution into the carnivore area of interest house, with elevated use of fireplace and an elevated part of meat in human diets, probably related to the metabolic calls for of increasing mind measurement. Though exceptional, these early megafauna extinctions had been average in power and pace relative to later extinctions skilled on all different continents and islands, in all probability due to an extended historical past in Africa and southern Eurasia of gradual hominid coevolution with different animals.” (Malhi et al 2016).

Fig 3. Diprotodon – a large relative of wombats. Credit score:

The sample is identical throughout Europe, America, Asia and Australia. There was local weather change —an ice age was beginning —however the arrival of people, with their environment friendly looking practices, cooperative behaviour and use of fireplace to change the panorama coincided with megafauna extinctions many times.  Harari, with an eloquent flip of phrase, sums up the proof:

“…greater than 90 p.c of Australia’s megafauna disappeared together with the diprotodon (sic). The proof is circumstantial, however it’s exhausting to think about that Sapiens, simply by coincidence, arrived in Australia on the exact level that each one these animals had been dropping useless of the chills.” (Harari 2011)

The story is perhaps not so easy for Diprotodon although. Charting the timing of arrivals and extinctions is notoriously tough. Kaars (2017) decided that the human invasion worn out the

Australian megafauna inside 4000 years, however fossil finds point out that Diprotodon coexisted with Aboriginal Australians for over 20,000 years (Musser 2019).  This implies that people might have altered the habitat, and hunted Diprotodon (Fig 3), however that they didn’t extirpate it alone. The altering local weather and rising aridity of the descending ice-age might have mixed to complete off the biggest wombat of all of them.

So, which is it? Did Diprotodon get worn out by the human invasion, or did local weather change end them off after a prolonged however uneasy coexistence, or each? Plainly pinpointing the timing of Diprotodon’s extinction will not be in itself fully easy. Johnson et al (2016) analysed the fossil report for Diprotodon and concluded:

“There are roughly 100 ages on Diprotodon from greater than 1 Myr to 2 ka. After filtering for reliability, solely 23 dependable dates remained, none youthful than 44 ka.”

This suggests that there was no lengthy coexistence with people. There was no quiet slide into oblivion because the nights received colder and the savannahs drier. As a substitute, as quickly as people arrived on the scene, Diprotodon, together with the remainder of the megafauna, winked out in a geological prompt (Fig 4), leaving just some rock artwork and tales of the bunyip behind.

Fig 4. Relative timing of human arrival and extinction of the megafauna. Kaars et al (2017)

Though Australian fauna, each actual and imagined, seems to be out to get you, people aren’t harmless bystanders. Regardless of how a lot of a risk the creatures of the wild have been to us, we have now been considerably extra of a risk to them.


Many due to James Tayler for useful feedback and perception.


Bednarik RG (2013) Megafauna depictions in Australian rock artwork. Rock Artwork Analysis 30(2): 197-215.

Dawson L (1985) Marsupial Fossils from Wellington Caves, New South Wales; the Historic and Scientific Significance of the Collections within the Australian Museum, Sydney. Information of the Australian Museum Vol. 37(2): 55-69.

Harari YN (2011) Sapiens: A short historical past of humankind. Penguin Random Home

Johnson C. N., Alroy J., Beeton N. J., Chicken M. I., Brook B. W., Cooper A., Gillespie R., Herrando-Pérez S., Jacobs Z., Miller G. H., Prideaux G. J., Roberts R. G., Rodríguez-Rey M., Saltré F., Turney C. S. M. and Bradshaw C. J. A. (2016) What precipitated extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna of Sahul? Proc. R. Soc. B.28320152399

Kaars S van der, Miller GH, Turney CSM, Cook dinner EJ, Nürnberg D, Schönfeld J, Kershaw AP and Lehman SJ (2017) People reasonably than local weather the first reason for Pleistocene megafaunal extinction in Australia. Nature Communications 8: 14142

Malhi Y, Christopher E, Doughty CE, Galetti M, Smith FA, Svenning JC, and Terborgh JW (2016) Megafauna and ecosystem perform from the Pleistocene to the Anthropocene. PNAS 113 (4) 838-846

Musser A (2019)

Worth GJ, Ferguson KJ, Webb GE, Feng Y, Higgins P, Nguyen AD, Zhao J, Joannes-Boyau R, and Louys J (2017) Seasonal migration of marsupial megafauna in Pleistocene Sahul (Australia–New Guinea). Proc Biol Sci. 284(1863): 20170785.

Edited by Rhys Charles and James Tayler

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