Does the Bunyip Really Haunt the Australian Wetlands?

By: Mark Mancini  | 
The bunyip is a creature from Aboriginal mythology. According to legend, the cryptid lives in the wetlands of Australia and hunts women and children. Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock

You're more likely to hear it before you see it in the flesh. (Or in the "feathers," as it were.)

Those who visit the right wetlands in New Caledonia, New Zealand, Tasmania or mainland Australia just might come across a tan, speckled heron who's got the voice of an electric bass guitar.


Deep and resonant, the booming cry that male Australian bitterns (Botaurus poiciloptilus) make when they're ready to breed sounds like it could've been ripped straight out of an '80s horror movie, the kind that your parents used to never let you rent from Blockbuster.

And what do you know? The Australian bittern bird is also called the "bunyip bird," after a legendary cryptid with a similarly frightening bellow who's said to prey on humans and live in the remote billabongs and wetlands of Australia.


The Bunyip's Indigenous Origins

"Everyone who has lived in Australian [sic] has heard of the Bunyip," wrote Rosa Praed (1851-1935), a novelist who grew up in Queensland. Few, though, live to tell the tale of an encounter with one.

Her 1891 short story "The Bunyip," considered a classic work of gothic horror, explains the beast:


The Bunyip is said to be an amphibious animal and is variously described: sometimes as a gigantic snake; sometimes as a species of rhinoceros, with a smooth pulpy skin and a head like that of a calf; sometimes as a huge pig, its body yellow, crossed with black stripes. But it is also said to be something more than animal, and among its supernatural attributes is the cold, awesome, uncanny feeling which creeps over a company at night when the Bunyip becomes the subject of conversation.

Praed was taking her cues here from folk stories and oral traditions passed down by countless generations of Aboriginal people. The word "bunyip" is thought to derive from "banib," the name given to a water spirit by Aboriginal speakers of the Wemba-Wemba language, which hail from present-day Victoria, Australia.

According to their legend, the bunyip is a man-eating monster who lives in the rivers, lakes and swamps of Australia. The bunyip's frightening bellow deters people from entering the water, and at night, it hunts for women and children.

Many Aussie regions have their own native myths and legends about river creatures. "[At] Hunter River in New South Wales, Aboriginal people referred to equivalent water spirits as the wawee, or variously as wauwai, whowie and wowee," Fred Cahir, Ian Clark and Philip Clarke wrote in their 2018 book, "Aboriginal Biocultural Knowledge in South-eastern Australia: Perspectives of Early Colonists."


The Bunyip's Call of the Wild

"The Bunyip" illustration by H. J. Ford
This illustration by H. J. Ford was in Andrew Lang's "Brown Fairy Book" for the tale "The Bunyip." Public Domain

Stories about the bunyip vary considerably, but the beast is often said to have a mighty roar, hence the bittern's awesome nickname.

"The mysterious booming sound made by the bittern ... a very shy bird, has become associated with the bunyip, but actual observers have usually described the sound of the latter as a roar or bellow," wrote Australian geographer Charles Fenner (1884-1955). Tales of the bunyip flourished during Fenner's lifetime, as Europeans further settled Australia. Unfamiliar with the sounds of the bush, many colonists were convinced of the bunyip's existence as an undiscovered animal.


To this day, there are those who believe the legendary bunyip could be a 100 percent real, undiscovered species lurking in the wetlands of the vast Australian continent. Wildlife experts aren't sold, though, especially because no verified corpses or remains have ever come to light.

A skull that supposedly belonged to a bunyip once went on display at the Colonial Museum of Sydney in 1847. However, naturalist William Sharp Macleay examined it and later revealed it was actually the head of a (deformed) mare. Another famous "bunyip head" — this one complete with fur — found its way to Sydney's Macleay Museum. Alas, it turned out the specimen came from yet another horse.


Down Under Is No Stranger to Strange Animals

Australia has no shortage of genuine animals that seem too weird to exist, like the duck-billed platypus. Equally amazing — if a bit less exotic — are the multitudes of seals and sea lions frequently encountered on the nation's beaches.

We should also acknowledge the saltwater crocodile, a semiaquatic predator that stalks Australian waterways and coastlines. Capable of weighing 2,643 pounds (1,200 kilograms) and reaching lengths of over 19.6 feet (6 meters), it's the biggest reptile alive today.


Could any of these beasts have contributed to bunyip lore? Perhaps.

There's also a chance that the storytellers of ancient Oz were inspired by the extinct, rhino-sized herbivore Diprotodon, which roamed Australia during the last ice age. Paleontologist Darren Naish has questioned this idea, too, on the grounds that Diprotodon doesn't neatly align with most descriptions of the bunyip.