Bringing Diprotodon to Life
Bringing animals and their environments to life in books isn’t new to us, but what if those animals have been extinct for tens of thousands of years?
We spoke to the team behind our children’s book Diprotodon: A Megafauna Journey, author Bronwyn Saunders and illustrator Andrew Plant, about how they decided to tell the story of the diprotodon through words and images, and the work and imagination required to make it real.
How did you become interested in diprotodons?
I grew up and went to school in Kalangadoo, which is about 350 kms south-east of Adelaide, SA. The name Kalangadoo means “big trees in water” and is on Boandik country. At least once a year, my teacher would take students on an excursion to the Naracoorte Caves where we learnt about stalagmites and stalactites. Megafauna was never mentioned, despite the fossil discoveries in 1969.
While on holiday in late 2006, I arranged to take my New Zealand husband, Rod, to the Naracoorte Caves to share a favoured childhood memory. Returning to the caves as an adult, I learned about megafauna. My interest was sparked by a statue, several facts from the tour guide and a tall tale. The tall tale was exposed quickly, but by then I didn’t care that diprotodon wasn’t carnivorous, as the animal had already made a home in my heart.
What inspires you the most about Australia’s Ice Age megafauna?
The magnitude of environmental change that megafauna witnessed and endured, including the beginning of seasonality. I was stunned to learn just how old some of our most iconic animals were, like the emu and cassowary. I am amazed by how much of our flora and fauna continue on from the Ice Age, even though much of the megafauna did not.
What’s your favourite fact that you discovered about the diprotodon?
Besides the fact that male diprotodons are the biggest marsupial to ever have lived, I think it is truly amazing that diprotodons could probably have used their nose to sniff out water and vegetation. I loved learning about the science, indicators and logic behind the fact that diprotodons likely had a prehensile lip to help them with their one major daily chore, eating. But most of all, I love the fact that they were likely covered with fur and not naked like a rhinoceros, because I like to think diprotodons would have been wonderfully soft to hug.
How did you decide what kind of story to tell?
One thing to remember about diprotodons is that they were marsupials, and no current marsupial is a direct descendant. Diprotodons are extinct and they were their own distinct animal group.
After learning about the ancient megafauna marsupial, I had to learn everything I could about diprotodons. This information was used to inform the diprotodon character who was stomping around my imagination.
I was originally intending to feature diprotodon in a fictional story. However, I found I couldn’t do the character justice if I anthropomorphised it because diprotodons were not in the everyday Australian’s lexicon. As soon as this conclusion was reached, it was obvious the first exposure of diprotodon had to be in an all-ages accessible narrative non-fiction picture book.
How did you recreate the Ice Age environment?
Illustrating Diprotodon allowed me to dive into my favourite kind of illustration – palaeoart. Whilst I love creating totally imaginary worlds, there’s something special about trying to recreate a world that once existed but has now vanished. The clues are all there from the work of numerous scientists – my job is to put it all together in a way that is not only accurate, but hopefully attractive as well.
Compared to some other prehistoric worlds I created over the years – from the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic, way back to the Ediacaran – the world of Diprotodon was relatively easy. After all, it’s pretty much still here! The landforms and flora are familiar to anyone who has travelled the arid and semi-arid parts of Australia.
Fifty thousand years ago is, in geological terms, very recent indeed. The birds that appear throughout the story are easily identifiable, as they would barely have changed in that time, if at all. But just to be safe, although the parrots are obviously some type of Polytelis, the finches some form of firetail, the quail very Turnix-ish, (bird nerds will know what I’m talking about!) the actual species are imaginary. That way, I can’t be accused of painting a Red-chested Button-quail without fossil evidence that it was around at the time!
How do you bring fossils back to life in your artwork?
Illustrating ancient landscapes is one thing, but, what about the extinct species? I’m a bit safer there since no one alive has seen one in the flesh. But the bones can tell us a lot, from their basic body form to how flexible their shoulders were, which was important in recreating Thylacoleo in the tree, for example.
Mistakes can still sneak in – I had to repaint every diprotodon tail after I’d finished all the art, because I’d made them all too short and rhino-like. That’s the danger for palaeoartists – letting animals that we know creep into reconstructions.
We currently don’t know diprotodon’s colours or patterns, so I could do whatever I liked, as long as it made sense. Many old reconstructions of diprotodons had very shaggy fur, giving them a rather dopey ‘ancient’ look.
Diprotodon’s environment could be both very cold, and blisteringly dry and hot. Its large size would have helped it stay warm during cold nights, but it could have easily overheated during the day if it had a shaggy pelt. So I based the fur length on today’s largest arid-zone marsupial – the red kangaroo, (also a close relative of the diprotodon, both being diprotodontia, to give them their scientific order). Its fur is very short and almost slightly woolly, so that’s what I painted.
The colour pattern I chose is just what you’d expect for a desert species, with some fun facial markings so that you can tell who’s who. Many kangaroos also have strongly patterned faces, so it’s not too far-fetched.
So I used the same process for all the extinct creatures in Diprotodon, starting with the skeleton, comparing with living relatives, thinking of their environment, and then deciding on an interesting angle to illustrate the text. You can probably tell that I don’t like pictures of animals just standing side by side much. Most of the illustrations have something close in the foreground – sometimes very close! I just like unusual angles and strong shadows – they’re interesting, and fun to paint.
Perfect for children aged 6 to 9 years old, Diprotodon: A Megafauna Journey is available to purchase on our website and from all good bookstores. We have also produced free downloadable Teacher Notes to support the use of this book in the classroom.
Bronwyn Saunders is a passionate citizen scientist who delights in sharing facts about Australia’s natural history with readers.
Andrew Plant is a Melbourne-based illustrator, author and science educator. He loves creating books about almost any subject, and is passionate about sharing that creativity with kids.
Watch the Diprotodon video trailer: