How The Bunyip Went Extinct – The Bristol Dinosaur Undertaking Weblog


Visitor Writer: Dr Rachel Kruft Welton
Present Palaeobiology MSc Scholar

Australia has all kinds of harmful and venomous creatures. Half the wildlife, it appears, is out to get you. You’d have thought, that with the spiders, scorpions, snakes, sharks, blue-ringed octopuses, hungry crocodiles and biting flies, it will 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. Solid 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 enormous bones have been often 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 have been found by a neighborhood 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 have been recognized by Sir Richard Owen and named Diprotodon optatum.

Diprotodon is known as for its two protruding entrance enamel, 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 relations are wombats and koalas, and it’s affectionately misnamed the Big Wombat. It was, nonetheless, considerably bigger than any marsupial dwelling at present, 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 scale of a hippopotamus, and lived in small familial herds. Comparability of carbon isotopes signifies that herds migrated over 200 km yearly (Value et al., 2017), in rhythm with the seasons. That they had highly effective jaws, able to consuming robust vegetation and most popular dry savannahs to dense forests.

Diprotodon developed 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 have been altering and the land was changing 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 might 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 moderately 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 into extinct effectively earlier than 40 ka in the past.”

People, it must be mentioned, don’t have a great observe file in the case 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 area, with elevated use of fireside and an elevated element of meat in human diets, probably related to the metabolic calls for of increasing mind dimension. Though outstanding, these early megafauna extinctions have been average in power and velocity 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 searching practices, cooperative behaviour and use of fireside to change the panorama coincided with megafauna extinctions repeatedly.  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, but it surely’s laborious to think about that Sapiens, simply by coincidence, arrived in Australia on the exact level that each one these animals have been dropping useless of the chills.” (Harari 2011)

The story is possibly 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 means 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? Evidently pinpointing the timing of Diprotodon’s extinction shouldn’t be in itself solely simple. Johnson et al (2016) analysed the fossil file 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 obtained 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 immediate (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 usually are not harmless bystanders. Regardless of how a lot of a risk the creatures of the wild have been to us, now we have 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. Data of the Australian Museum Vol. 37(2): 55-69.

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

Johnson C. N., Alroy J., Beeton N. J., Fowl 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 brought on 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 moderately 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)

Value 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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