Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dunkleosteus - Old Bone-Face in Popular Culture

Western popular culture loves prehistoric beasts, especially dinosaurs. Indeed, dinosaurs crowd out almost everything else.  Exceptions are the mighty shark Megalodon, which has its own subculture of books, movies, and other stuff, and marine reptiles, which share space with the dinosaurs (and are often incorrectly called dinosaurs) as well as having some properties of their own and cross-fertilizing with the interest in sea monsters and lake monsters. I caught a traveling exhibit on marine reptiles way back in 1991 at the Fort Worth (TX) Museum of Natural History, where one display asked “Is Nessie a Plesiosaur?” (The answer, in case you were wondering, was a politely argued “no.”)  

Now, on to Dunkleosteus: there are many species, but D. terrelli was by far the largest, and is the only one I’m concerned with.  Dunkleosteus is a genus name now widely accepted, after being untangled from the older and once-conflated Dinichthys (still a good genus of its own) and the latter’s proposed synonym or replacement, Ponerichthys. I think I have all that right.
Despite its enormous size (9-10 meters!) and fearsome appearance, though, the Dunk doesn’t appear much at all in pop culture compared to the plesiosaurs and tyrannosaurs of the Cretaceous. 

Dunkleosteus terrelli (image public domain)

Here’s my first attempt at a list:

The cheap and stunningly awful 2002 film Megalodon includes a baby Dunk: a character says the species grew to 12 feet long, a rare understatement. (I saw the baby prop on an online sale years later for $50 but for some reason didn’t pursue it.)

In the 1984 French-Italian horror film Monster Shark, the Dunk is (I swear I’m not making this up) one of the “parent” species used to breed a monster by crossing it with an octopus.  If the film is notable at all, it’s for presaging the “Sharktopus” and other idiotic hybrid creatures on the SyFy Channel.
I was mainly looking at Western culture, but the 2008 Studio Ghibli animalted film Ponyo includes a Dunk among its varied cast of fishy creatures.    

TV (nonfiction):
Start with the BBC series Sea Monsters (a.k.a. Chased by Sea Monsters, where the seven most dangerous seas in history included, in fifth place, the Devonian world of the Dunk.  There’s terrific CGI of the Dunk scaring hell out of a time-traveling explorer in a shark cage.

Dunkleosteus appeared in the second episode of Animal Armageddon on Animal Planet.

There’s an effort described on FaceBook to raise money for a new documentary and for a film called Dunkleosteus the Devilfish.  Not much seems to be happening, though. Another independent feautre called Dark Earth would also use Dunks, if funded to completion.

TV (fiction):
Some online sources mention the Dunk appearing in the ITV science fiction series Primeval, but I can’t find a definitive reference. 

Books (fiction):
The Dinotopia series of books, made into a TV miniseries, included “The Fish,” a Dunk that guarded the underwater entrance to a cavern.

In the Bas-Lag fantasy  novels of China MiĆ©ville,  Dunks are called "bonefish."

There’s a novel on Kindle called The Twelve Seas: Deep Lagoon, by Lenore Langland, that features the Dunk, and the animal makes an appearance in Steve Alten’s popular Megalodon series in the 2009 novel Meg:Hell’s Aquarium. It pops up again the recent Meg: Nightstalkers.

Finally, there’s a 1969 novel for young readers, Corey’s Sea Monster, by Rutherford George Montgomery, that centers on a  Dunkleosteus (here called  Dinichthys).

Books (nonfiction):
Countless books on fossils, fishes, etc. have at least brief mentions of the Dunk. A 2005 example - this one for young readers -  is  Dragons of the Deep: Ocean Monsters Past and Present by Carl Wieland and Darrell Wiskur. Deep Alberta: Fossil Facts and Dinosaur Digs by John Acorn (2007) is of special interest because Alberta has produced some of the best Dunk fossils.  The Dunk also appears in companion books to the above-mentioned TV documentaries, like the 2004 volume Chased by Sea Monsters by Nigel Marven and Jasper James. It appears only momentarily in Richard Ellis’ book Sea Dragons, but that's long enough for Ellis to create the definitive description by likening the animal’s jaws (in a memorable line I’ve been borrowing ever since) to a giant staple remover.  A unique angle on the Dunk and its relations appears in the 2012 book The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex, by John A. Long. The placoderms were the first animals we know of to have actual sex (internal fertilization), and palentologists are still discussing just how sex was possible with all that armor: the male may have had to shove the female face-first into the seabed, which kind of takes the romance out of it.

The Dunk appears briefly in ParaWorld and plays a bigger role in E.V.O. Search For Eden and Ecco the Dolphin. On Android phones, you can choose the Dunk as your prey in the game Dinosaur Assassin Pro.  There’s also an old PlayStation game called Aquanaut's Holiday that includes the Dunk.

So that’s Dunkleosteus in popular media. It’s not much of a record compared to the dinosaurs, but it’s enough to introduce the world to one of the most remarkable creatures of all time.
We can do better, though. I’m working on it


Thanks to some fans on FaceBook and the Comment below, I can now make some additions.  The Jurassic Park Builder games do indeed allow you to raise your own Dunkleosteus. nd, going way back into the 1970s, Dungeons and Dragons included a Dunkleosteus, known in the game as Dinichthys.
Sources: In addition to the sources linked above, I am indebted to a Wikipedia user named Resident Mario for a list posted here on Wikipedia in 2009.


j_rad said...

Its also featured as an attraction in the mobile game Jurassic Park Builder.

Matt Bille said...

Good catch!

Movies. said...

We've got one attacking an Edwardian rocket ship partially submerged in a swamp on an alien planet in the film 'Dark Earth'. We're doing it with a Mo-Motion underwater puppet.

Matt Bille said...

Now that's original. It sounds like fun.