Announcements and Articles: The Gatehouse Quarter => Exilian Articles => Topic started by: Jubal on March 18, 2018, 05:37:27 PM

Title: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Second Parchment
Post by: Jubal on March 18, 2018, 05:37:27 PM
An Unexpected Bestiary: The Second Parchment
By Jubal

So, I was hoping to get a few more bonus articles than we're going to end up with today, but hopefully this will be a reasonable offering - moving on from An Unexpected Bestiary (https://exilian.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=5536.0), my previous article discussing some interesting and lesser known real creatures and thoughts on how they could inspire creativity in game design, creative writing, and beyond, I can now proudly present The Second Parchment, a continuation of that article with seven more bizarre and wonderful creatures. Some of these you may never have heard of: others you'll be familiar with, but hopefully I can show them to you in a different light. Read on to discover more...


The quoll is a marsupial (well, one of six species of marsupial) roughly similar in build and ecological niche to the mustelids of the rest of the world. The name has aboriginal roots – early settler names like “spotted marten” or “marsupial cat” were dropped in favour of the more distinctive word. Solitary hunters and scavengers with a powerful bite, the smaller species eat small mammals and frogs, whereas the larger ones can take on birds and slightly larger mammals like echidnas.

The quoll could have a lot of fictional uses similar to a weasel or stoat – they’re a good “exotic mage’s familiar” option, and their spotted appearance gives them a very particular and striking look that differentiates them from a marten or polecat. If you’re willing to play around with their behaviour, size, or biology, there’s a lot more you could do with them – a giant one, or a pack of large ones, could be a pretty interesting threat to a character. Whilst I’m not aware that you can train real quolls very easily, I can imagine they’d also present a fun twist on “sneaky animal sent in with enough smarts to steal keys and pick locks”, if you’ve used monkeys one time too many for that.

Saiga Antelopes

The Saiga is a small, critically endangered species of antelope from the central Asian steppes – only around 50,000 are left after a major population crash in the past few years. They are best known for their bizarrely shaped face, with bloated nostrils that help filter out dust and cool the animals down in the summer months. Males have impressive horns, and the species lives in large, highly mobile herds – their main defence against predators and natural disasters is simply to move on to literal pastures new.

The Saiga have traditionally been hunted – the Chinese population has now been entirely wiped out – both for their meat, and for their horns, which are used in Chinese “traditional medicine” much like rhinoceros horns are and can sell for large sums of money. Steppe antelopes like this are definitely an option for hunted beasts. I think the distinctive look and relatively small size of the Saigas could make them a fun mount for some sort of little folk in a fantasy setting: unlike a lot of antelopes, they look sufficiently different and alien to creatures we know better that it could really mark out riders as otherworldly.

Mata mata

The Mata mata is one of the most bizarre looking vertebrates on the planet. It’s a South American freshwater turtle with a huge head triangular and exceptionally long neck, and an extremely knobbly skin. Its feeding method is pretty simple. It sits under the surface of a pool, with its up-pointed nose allowing it to breathe as if through a snorkel; thanks to its less than elegant appearance, it just looks like floating detritus, fooling predator and prey alike. It sits there and waits for a fish to come past – then simply opens its huge mouth and throat and sucks, dragging fish and water alike in and swallowing the lot.

I think the above – and the species’ unique appearance – speaks for itself when it comes to using the Mata mata in games or writing. A giant one would make a ready-made “trap-type monster”, waiting to just suddenly gulp down an unsuspecting player or even boat, depending on how big you made one. They’re also not hard to keep as pets, especially since they don’t tend to move around much, so they’d be a good exotic pet for… well, I leave the imagination of the sorts of characters who’d want to keep a Mata mata up to you!



Desmans are essentially aquatic moles, which is a pretty cool starting point for an animal. There are two species of desman: a southwestern European species found in the Pyrenees and northern Spain, and a Russian species found in the Urals. They have extremely sensitive snouts, and their paws are adapted more for swimming than digging: they rootle around for small creatures on the edge of mountain streams.

The desman has some pretty cool features like echolocation, and has been hunted and trapped for furs in the past, which gives it a baseline of relations with humans. I think there are some other interesting ways one could use them in stories, though: I quite like the idea of desmans as message carriers, perhaps with a little waterproofed bag tied to their leg and trained to slip out through a castle or mill’s stream to carry messages to a partner in crime or spy in the enemy camp. They’d also of course make endearing children’s characters much as water-voles and other semiaquatic creatures seem to in many actual works of childrens’ fiction. A story of how the desman learned to swim could be a nice Just So Stories style idea to work on. In general, I think it’s nice to have animals for fiction that are alike enough to a well-known creature for people to relate to, but with a twist to make them sufficiently different to be interesting, and so the desman’s position as a water-mole is a nice one to play around with.


Few birds have so rich a literary and mythic tradition as the hoopoe, yet so little showtime in modern writing. These little birds have extremely distinctive Mohican-style crests, and orange colouration which makes them very noticeable and distinctive. They’re found across much of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

From the earliest times, hoopoes have been noticed and. They eat a number of insect species including agricultural pests, which gives them some positive attributes, and in many middle-Eastern and early cultures they had royal connotations. In ancient Egypt the symbol of the hoopoe was related to legitimacy in birth; in Aristophanes, the hoopoe was the king of the birds, and in the medieval Persian Conference of the Birds, the hoopoe becomes the birds’ leader as they attempt to find the Simurgh, their king. In Abrahamic and European folklore they have less positive connotations: they are not kosher in Judaism (though this didn’t stop them being named the national animal of Israel in 2008), and they have associations with thievery and death across parts of central and northern Europe. In Scandinavia they were once seen as harbingers of war, and in Estonia their song is said to foretell death; meanwhile in medieval ritual magic, they had further death associations, with the sacrifice of a hoopoe called for in magic books to aid in the summoning of demons.

With so many associations, and their extremely striking appearance, it’s very surprising to me that we don’t see more hoopoes. Whether you’re writing a Middle-eastern ruler, a Minoan trying to claim your birthright, a Viking looking for portents of the future, or a medieval German necromancer, give these little guys some thought – they may be more important than you know.

Sorting Hat Spiders

So, these guys, Eriovixia gryffindori, are mostly being included here for the name, but there’s some interesting discussion to be had around that. The sorting hat spider was discovered in 2016 in India, and its distinctively shaped cephalothorax (the back half of the body) is thought to have developed in order to make it easier for the spider to mimic leaf litter and hide from predators. Both the common and Latin names were given based on its similarity to the Sorting Hat in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books – originally owned by Godric Gryffindor.
Invertebrates and other animals, especially ones added anew into an existing language, are often named after existing forms, animals, ideas, or cultural phenomena, and when making up fantasy creatures for your worlds and settings that’s something to take into account. The idea of having animals that are seen as reflecting the human world in their shape, style, and form is something that’s a pretty interesting one to play around with too – in a fictional setting, there actually could be some sort of symbolism in the creation of such animals, or alternatively one could play around with giving animals very different connotations to the ones our own culture has come up with.



The walrus is certainly a well known animal but, I think, one that gets underplayed in fiction. I think a lot of people have the same issue I do with them, which is that I basically think of them as “those seal things with the tusks”, and then mentally assume they can’t be that much bigger than a regular seal… whereas in fact a pacific bull walrus can weigh in at two thousand kilos, about equivalent in weight to a white rhinoceros and not far off the bulk of an Asian elephant. These things are biiiig. And pretty dangerous as a result, of course – though the amount of blubber and ivory that can be gained by hunting one made it worthwhile for many throughout human history. Walrus ivory has been a particularly major part of creations across the arctic and subarctic world - the Lewis Chessmen are mostly carved from walrus tusks, and they've been an important basic carving medium for cultures across that part of the world.

I’m admittedly not well read in fantasy generally, but I really can’t think of many settings that involve a walrus – but as a serious level opponent, they’re as dangerous as a bear or shark. Metre long tusks are a formidable threat, to say the least, and they come in literal herds rather than just being solitary. Their semiaquatic nature can make them a potential target/threat on both land and sea, as well, which adds to their potential versatility. In the wild, only orcas and polar bears ever seriously attempt to hunt them, and even then mostly only older or infirm individuals. If you want a really heavy-duty opponent in a snow-bound adventure, think about the walrus – its size and power alone make it a genuinely formidable beast to include in any sort of writing or game design.


And there you have it, seven more unexpected creatures and some thoughts on their potential roles in your creative works! I defintiely have more than enough animals left for a part three, so let me know if you want that to happen sometime - and I hope you found this a good bonus article to have for Exilian's tenth birthday today!
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Second Parchment
Post by: Silver Wolf on March 19, 2018, 12:01:04 AM
Loving it, and I've gotta say that it reminded me of Vienna!

BTW posting just to subscribe to this thread. ;)
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Second Parchment
Post by: Phoenixguard09 on March 19, 2018, 12:29:24 AM
Absolutely want Part 3. Really like these articles.
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Second Parchment
Post by: Tusky on March 19, 2018, 10:10:58 AM
I would also be keen to see a third installment since it's good fodder for people's projects as you said  :)

Your inclusion of the walrus reminded me of the walrus camps you can get in dont starve. They are tough cookies!

Interesting read though - gj
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Second Parchment
Post by: Jubal on March 19, 2018, 10:27:18 AM
I think I found the hoopoe the most interesting one to do for this one - I knew about their appearance in the Conference of the Birds, but not their ancient Egyptian or northern European traditional connotations. I'll hopefully see them around here in the summer now I'm living in central Europe. :)
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Second Parchment
Post by: Phoenixguard09 on March 20, 2018, 02:00:04 AM
The hoopoe was also the one that actually taught me something in this article, though a reminder of just how big walruses are is always handy.

Never know when that knowledge may come in useful...
Title: Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Second Parchment
Post by: Jubal on March 20, 2018, 06:22:12 AM
I'm not sure which animals I'll do next... I really must do pangolins at some point. I quite keeping a range of taxa in these, so I'll try for a mix again - I guess the folklore side may interest people most, but that often seems inversely proportional to how "unexpected" and thus warranting inclusion an animal is. I should've looked up more walrus myths really but I was flagging a bit by entry #7.