Author Topic: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment  (Read 710 times)


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An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment
« on: May 27, 2020, 10:21:48 AM »
An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment
By Jubal

Here’s the overdue part four of my series “An Unexpected Bestiary”, in which I look at the natural history and narrative potential of seven more animals you might well never have heard of before. From the less humble than expected Dunnock to the tiny Honey possum and the bizarrely beautiful Sea swallow, there’s hopefully plenty of interest here! You can find the other parts of this series here, here, and here.


You may have seen a video circulating around the internet a while back of a bird apparently bouncing discarded balls on the hard surfaces around a golf course. The captions often suggested it was playing, or having fun – but there’s a bit more to the story. The bird was a Red-legged Seriema, a bipedal hunting bird from South America. Their strategy for hunting isn’t based on having especially strong legs or talons, or being able to fly especially well – rather, they have very powerful beaks and necks, and throw their prey down on the ground hard or shake it about to break it, eating a mix of smaller mammals, eggs, lizards and snakes. In other words, that bird was probably trying to break the golf balls in the hope that they were eggs it could eat, and was getting baffled by the weird devil eggs that just bounced instead of breaking!

Fast runners at up to fifteen miles an hour – quicker than a human – the Seriemas only fly when there’s a particular need to escape predators. They will nest a metre or two up, and can be both in conflict with and trained by farmers, who will keep them at times as guard animals to warn predators off chicken flocks and other small farm animals.

Seriemas are fantastic possibilities for a certain aesthetic of fantasy fiction. They’re bright enough to learn, so the idea of a fantasy South American ruler or noble heading out to hunt with a pack of Seriemas to keep the snakes away and run out to finish off smaller prey is definitely a workable image. The red-legged Seriema’s distinctive crest positioned at the top of its beak particularly helps the aesthetic. Simply reflecting their actual usage works well too, however, with them being one of the less well known species to have a trained relationship with humans.

Noble Pen Shells

Pinna nobilis, the Noble Pen Shell, is a large and increasingly rare bivalve mollusc living in the Mediterranean Sea. They have attractive, large shells with beautifully iridescent mother-of-pearl inside, and require clean, warm waters to live in, and – a fatal combination, as overfishing for the tourist shell market combined with pollution and habitat destruction has led to the population crashing to a critically endangered fraction of its former glory. This isn’t just a tale of a pretty but otherwise unprepossessing big shellfish and the loss of its habitat though – Noble Pen Shells have a fascinating property that’s made them the heart of an ancient craft industry dating back millennia.

Bivalves have little threads, the Byssus, that anchor them to rocks on the sea floor to stop them floating away. On most of them, the threads are far too small to be of any interest to humans – but the mighty size of Pinna Nobilis, up to a metre in size, can have Byssus filaments up to six centimetres in length – just enough, in fact, that if collected in sufficient numbers they can be woven into cloth.

Sea silk, as the resulting fabric is today known, is a miraculous material, highly sought after since the ancient world. The Byssus threads are exceptionally fine and can be woven more finely than silk can, creating an exceptionally light and warm fabric. The tendency for it to be a favoured target of clothes moths, rarely being passed down for generations, has probably only added to its rarity and value over time. Procopius records a set of sea silk cloaks being an exceptionally fine gift from the Emperor to the highest nobility of Armenia, while a ninth century Persian writer recorded over a thousand gold pieces as the price of a robe (only affordable by society’s greatest elites: a slave could probably be purchased for under forty gold pieces at the time). Middle Eastern writers recorded stories of strange sheep-like animals that emerged from the sea, no doubt influenced by the practice of calling Byssus cloth “sea wool”. More recently, the uniforms of Jules Verne’s Nautilus crew had to come from somewhere, and what better place than the sea floor?

Sea industries that aren’t fishing are perhaps particularly interesting narratively because there are relatively few of them. If you want to get some sea-shore interest into your campaign, threats that keep weavers away from harvesting their immensely valuable, time consuming crop might well be worth a protagonist’s time to go and investigate, with the shallow sea diving involved allowing for narrative interest without the need to shoehorn scuba gear or underwater breathing herbs into your tale. And there’s something about the end product, sea silk, which is immediately captivating: we dream of kingdoms under the sea, lost arts and treasures of the deeps, and this gives sea silk a mystique that even regular silk, which might once have attracted the same feelings, now lacks due to our general familiarity with it.

The art of sea silk weaving is now in the process of being lost forever: Pinna nobilis is now so endangered that its last practitioners in Sicily and Sardinia, most of them very elderly, are unable in any case to obtain the raw materials for their craft. I write this, almost undoubtedly, in the age of the last generation of sea silk craftspeople. We sometimes find it odd when narrative worlds fixate on the crafts that ancient versions of a culture were once able to do, and the idea of lost secrets – but, without many people even remembering that the secret was there to be lost, some of our own are disappearing beneath now-empty seas.


Small, common birds tend to be pretty overlooked in most literature, and it’s not that hard to see why. They can’t be trained for many useful purposes, they’re too small to make a good meal, so it’s not obvious that the characters have a good way to interact with them. The occasional princess might find herself surrounded by generic songbirds, some mage might send small birds with messages, but in neither case do the differences between types of small bird tend to matter a great deal. I think that’s a pity, however. Past people’s understandings of the world almost certainly included a lot more detail on small birds than ours do, simply because in the wild they’re a completely everyday occurrence – although people’s past understandings of those animals of course often also had gaps.

Dunnocks, a small brown bird that visually looks a bit similar to a Sparrow, are a good example of both.

“Be thou like the dunnock – the male and female impeccably faithful to each other”, proclaimed the naturalist Reverend Frederick Morris to his parishioners in the 1850s. These small, drab birds seemed like the perfect emulation of an idealised humble, protestant ethic. Morris couldn’t have been more wrong: Dunnocks have an exceptionally loose and fluid sexual structure, with multiple males around a single female often sharing the work in raising a brood that mixes young from all of them (and some of those males may be visiting and helping with other females and nests too). Capable of copulating in a tenth of a second, and doing so over a hundred times a day, the assumptions people made about these birds traditionally were rather different from the reality.

Dunnocks were historically often simply known as hedge-sparrows, Chaucer’s heyesugge (indeed one mid twentieth century folklorist bemoaned the popularisation of “dunnock”, previously a more localised dialect word, by ornithologists). In Irish they are Bráthair an Dreoilín, the wren’s brothers. The Celtic fringes of Britain seem to have a particular range of folklore on them: Ada Goodrich-Freer’s 1902 compilation of Hebridean folklore records them as “blessed, but not lucky”, and suggests that Dunnocks gathering around a door are the harbinger of a child’s death. In Ireland, too, their sad little songs are said to be the voices of children who have passed away. These sorts of connections to specific facts or emotions can help bring the differences between otherwise less plot-central animals into view in narrative terms too, and can also point to specific uses for them: too much of the time, we assume that because an animal can’t be eaten or trained it can’t have plot relevance, but there are far more options than that: in Irish tradition the Dunnock’s distinctive blueish-green eggs were used as charms against witches, especially placed on the hob to stop them coming down the chimney. Rather than the tendency in some games to gut and use different parts of larger creatures, there’s no reason why magical ingredients shouldn’t come from specific smaller ones. Add a couple of challenges to overcome to reach and find the Dunnock’s nest, as part of a wider method of dealing with a local hag problem, and we find that a decent side adventure is starting to emerge from the humble – or not so humble – Dunnock already.


The Mara is a distinctive South American rodent from the southern grasslands of the continent. Looking more or less like what happens when a Guinea-pig decides to change careers and become a Hare, they’re some of the largest rodents (fourth after Capybaras, Beavers, and the larger Porcupines). They don’t tend to interact with humans much, and around areas with too much human activity will often switch to nocturnal behaviour patterns to avoid contact, though they live well in captivity as good pets and can be hunted both for meat and furs.

Maras are useful because they are a big clear klaxon horn of “we’re not in pseudo-Europe any more”, whilst also, I think equally importantly, giving a sense of cuteness and familiarity. Far too often, non-Euro settings especially in fantasy feel the need to emphasise power in the cultures and landscapes they focus on, to give an idea of the appropriate majesty and strength that those places can have and make them feel equal to the dragons and castles fantasy fans are used to. But I think it’s equally important for settings to have homely elements to avoid othering them – a setting that just seems to contain giant god-serpents and terror birds is a place you can adventure in, but a setting that has those and also has cute little Maras bouncing around is the sort of place you can start empathising with and wanting to be protected from its more terrifying and powerful forces, and that’s narratively a very important tool. They’re also emphatically the sort of thing a certain sort of rather cavalier pixie would absolutely love to ride around on, too, so there’s that going for them.

Sea Swallow

In a previous Unexpected Bestiary, we covered the Sea Sheep, a sea slug with the clever trick of stealing Choloroplasts from algae it eats. Well, the sea swallow is another Sea slug – more streamlined, and with its own far more deadly clever metabolic quirk.

You see, Sea swallows specialise in eating dangerous jellyfish and similar creatures, especially the Portugese Man O’ War. Not much wants to eat a Man O’ War – it’s a powerful predator and its sting is utterly debilitating to most creatures, known at times to kill humans. But for the little Sea slug, just a tenth as long as the Man O’ War’s swim bladder, that just seems to mean less competition in the food queue. The Sea swallow is immune to the stinging whips that hang down from the floating creature which is a key part of the feeding strategy… but not only that, the Sea swallow actively chooses to eat the stinging, venomous parts of its prey. Taking the most deadly of the little explosive cells, called Nematocysts, that deliver the Man O’ War’s sting, they store them and keep them active in specialised sacs at the end of their Cerata, the feathery fingers that extend from the Swallow’s body. Indeed their sacs can concentrate the venom better than the original nematocyst structure, meaning the Sea swallow’s sting can be more dangerous than the creature it got it from.

Or to cut the long description short – this tiny, beautiful Sea slug steals Jellyfish stings powerful enough to kill humans, and can and will sting you with them.

This is one of those creatures that’s somehow got a strong sci-fi feel despite being very much real. I think that they’re tricky in some ways to use narratively: they’re hard for humans/terrestrial humanoids to encounter for the most part, and if you do encounter one you’re either having bad luck or are going to be in a very dominant position – it’s an “if you get bad luck it will do you huge damage, otherwise you’ll be fine” creature when put in an antagonistic position, and its aquatic nature means it’s hard to see any sort of intent involved (being dumped into a tank of Sea swallows by an archvillain might be incredibly dangerous, but it’d have to be a very particular villain to pull that off in a satisfying way). However, creatures based on them and their behaviours could work better – the concept of a creature that has evolved to steal and re-use another creature’s killing or defense mechanism is definitely good – and the look would work broadly very well in a sci-fi setting.

Honey possum

Pollination, the movement of pollen grains between flowers, is one of the keys to life on earth as we know it. Required for the survival of many flowering plants, many insects and small flying vertebrates are key to carrying pollen around, usually lured into the plant by the sweet nectar available there. But there are almost no non-flying species that specialise in nectar drinking – to do so requires an area with flowers available most of the year, to allow such an animal to survive the winter. There is an exception though – the ngoolboongoor to give its proper name in the native Noongar language, or the Honey Possum to English speakers.

This tiny creature (six to nine centimetres combined head and body length) clambers around flowers in southwestern Australia, drinking nectar and moving pollen around between the flower heads, especially the huge candlestick-like flowers of the Biara tree Banksia attenuata. They can go into torpid states for some days at a time if food is short, but their body mass is too small to do this for an extended period.

Honey possums importantly play with people’s expectations about how an ecosystem works – terrestrial mammals doing a role we expect to be performed by flying insects. They do also have spiritual significance to the Noongar, who have traditions of personal and family totem animals among which the little marsupials may feature. They’re more an animal that can create colour and depth in the background of a setting than one that is going to be placed foremost, though somewhere with a lot of flowers could have that emphasised quite effectively by the presence of Honey possums as pollinators – given our mental associations, it gives a much better calm and relaxing feel to say “and his garden of a thousand flowers has tiny furry possums jumping between the to carry the pollen” than “you reach the garden of a thousand flowers and it is FULL OF BEES”.


If you’ve ever read a fantasy book with much magic in it, there’s a good chance someone has cast a jinx as a type of spell. Indeed if you grew up in an English-speaking environment, there’s a good chance calls like “jinx – touch wood!” or the idea of “being jinxed” as a curse or after saying a word simultaneously will trigger something in your memory. But the name doesn’t just arise from a strange big of magic related terminology - the Jinx, Jynx in Latin, or iunx in Ancient Greek, is the name of the wryneck, a smallish, well camouflaged brown bird closely related to Woodpeckers. So what connects these two things? Why did the name of an apparently normal bird become a byword for curses?

The Wryneck, it turns out, has a particular trick which has fascinated humans for all of recorded history and beyond. When threatened, it sticks its head up, and mimics a Snake with it. Its English name is based on the incredibly eerie twisting and turning motions that its head can undergo, contorting and wiggling at strange angles that along with strange hissing noises make the predator convinced that what they’re facing is a much more formidable and more reptilian opponent than they’d bargained for. This incredible behaviour has been observed throughout human history and led to the continuous association of wrynecks with magic and witchcraft. Indeed, the “wry neck” gives them their English name, and their scientific name Jynx torquillalikewise references the torque of their twisting motions.

Iunx was also a nymph in Greek myth – a daughter of Pan and Echo, cursed by Hera to turn into the Wryneck after she cast a spell that caused Zeus to fall in love with Io, making her quite literally the wingman responsible for a lineage containing about half the major Greek classical heroes. Another tale suggests that instead she was the daughter of Pireus and the curse came after she and her sisters challenged the muses to a musical contest. Either way, the magical associations came early and continued. The Wryneck seems to have been especially associated with love magic at times, with particularly unfortunate birds apparently being captured and whirled around on a string as a charm to bring back an errant lover; the Greek poet Pindar has Jason (of Argonauts fame) using a Wryneck in magic to win the heart of Medea, too. The idea of “jinxing” someone seems to appear in English in the early modern period, maintaining some of its connections: a 1903 “Encyclopaedia of Superstitions” suggested that a young woman who sees a Wryneck on the morning of February 14th will remain eternally unmarried. I don’t think I really need to go heavily into “how do I use the weird snake mimic magic bird that might be a transformed Nymph and can be used in witchcraft” from a narrative perspective beyond all that... there’s just so much there!

Thank you for reading, as ever – I’m intrigued to know what you think, or if you have any good stories or folklore I’ve missed about any of these wonderful creatures. Do leave a comment below, and I’ll see you for part five of the series at some point in the future!
« Last Edit: June 15, 2020, 01:24:11 PM by Leafly »
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...


  • Sebastokrator
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Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment
« Reply #1 on: May 27, 2020, 02:12:27 PM »
Check out Tourney: The medieval tournament simulator, a PC game I am working on!
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  • Despotes Syntactes
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Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment
« Reply #2 on: May 27, 2020, 02:48:23 PM »
Thank you for your kind comment Tusky :) and of course Jubal :), for all of your help that made the content editing possible! A few changes to add, but it's a start!


  • Megas Domestikos
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Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment
« Reply #3 on: June 09, 2020, 03:23:52 AM »
Always love reading this series. Can definitely see the honey possum in Norbayne, and I hadn't heard about the wryneck before, which was nice.
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Re: An Unexpected Bestiary: The Fourth Parchment
« Reply #4 on: June 14, 2020, 09:53:33 PM »
Yeah, the wryneck is amazing. Here's some video of the behaviour described, it's quite something:

The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...