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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’ll have thought, that with the spiders, scorpions, snakes, sharks, blue-ringed octopuses, hungry crocodiles and biting flies, it could be pointless to invent a mythological creature intent on devouring people. Nonetheless, Indigenous Australians have lengthy described a lethal water-spirit known 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 kids.

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

    Sightings of the bunyip owe a lot to the creativeness of the particular person reporting the incident, however bones are more durable to dismiss, and finds of enormous 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 known 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 enamel, which sprouted from a strong cranium. So as to add to the lovable goofiness, it had toes that turned inwards (Musser 2019). Its closest dwelling family members are wombats and koalas, and it’s affectionately misnamed the Big Wombat. It was, nevertheless, considerably bigger than any marsupial dwelling immediately, 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. 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 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) exhibiting what could possibly be Diprotodon has been present in a couple 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 into extinct nicely earlier than 40 ka in the past.”

    People, it needs to be stated, don’t have a superb monitor file on the subject 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 Hom0erectus evolution into the carnivore area of interest house, with elevated use of fireside 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 reasonable 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 – an enormous 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 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, nevertheless it’s exhausting to think about that Sapiens, simply by coincidence, arrived in Australia on the exact level that every one these animals had been dropping lifeless 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 implies that people could 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 could 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 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 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 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 should not harmless bystanders. Irrespective of how a lot of a menace the creatures of the wild have been to us, now we have been considerably extra of a menace to them.


    Many because of 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., 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 brought about 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 explanation 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) taught/australia-over-time/extinct-animals/diprotodon-optatum/

    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