Making a Monster Extinction: Episode 1

Once a species goes extinct, it’s impossible to get it back. But the stories of these animals can live on at Dungeons & Dragons tables. Book of Extinction is an monster manual from Mage Hand Press coming to Kickstarter in 2022. This is the story of these animals and how we mythologize them.

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Episode Transcript

Lucas: All right. So I’m on the campus of Miami university in Oxford, Ohio. I’m at Upham Hall. It is a beautiful old building.

Hi, I’m Lucas Zellers, host of Making a Monster, the bite-sized podcast that explores the monsters in Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games, how they work, why they work and what they mean. Monsters are the stories that shape our games. And each one is heir to thousands of years of history, folklore, and mythology. The most successful monster stories begin with something we already know – or don’t know – from the natural world.

Lucas: and I have driven through just the curviest countryside to get here. Let me just find a way in.

Joe Gaylord: Half the story has to be spent in the magical world, and of course the white rabbit is THE creature that does that.

Lucas: And what do we put on maps of the unknown world? When we don’t know what’s there?

Matt Davids: Here be dragons.

Nat Biggs: I call it the displacer beast. I want them to say, “Oh, that’s like a panther, but, it has six limbs. It has the suction cupped tentacles of a squid and the mind of a serial killer.”

D&D’s owlbear. Hoot-growl!

Lucas: Even the most famous D&D monster and probably the one that people love the most is just an owl and a bear kind of smooshed together.

It turns out natural history and fantasy are one in the same thing. The skulls of mammoths in caves on Crete, with their central nasal orifice, are thought to have given rise to the myth of the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus, son of Poseidon and dimwitted captor of the Argonauts. The legend of the gold-guarding Griffin, a staple of D&D, may be the result of experienced falconers in what is now the Gobi desert describing the beaked, four-footed fossils of protoceratops rearing out of a desert paved with bones.

That’s why I made the drive on a late summer Saturday to visit Steve Sullivan director of the Hefner Museum of Natural History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Protoceratops andrewsi, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.

The biodiversity of our natural world has created the biodiversity of our storytelling. If we want good D&D, we have to care about the natural world and the creatures in it. And now more than ever.

Steve Sullivan: Welcome to Miami University’s Hefner Museum of Natural History. This is a small natural history museum that’s just packed full of awesome specimens. And its main goal of course, is to, to be a place where biology students can interact with authentic specimens, both in an educational way and also in a research way.

Lucas: We’re entering a sixth mass extinction of life forms on this planet. The first to be caused by humans. One third of all reef building corals, a third of all, freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, a sixth of all birds were headed for oblivion as of 2014.

By August of 2021, the National Academy of Sciences estimated “more than 500 species of land animals are likely to be lost within 20 years. The same number were lost over the whole of the last century.” And in September, as I was doing interviews for this podcast, the U S Fish and Wildlife service declared the ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 other species extinct, the largest single group of species so declared since the endangered species act went into effect in 1973.

An ivory-billed woodpecker specimen is on a display at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021. Death’s come knocking a last time for the splendid ivory-billed woodpecker and 22 assorted birds, fish and other species: The U.S. government is declaring them extinct. It’s a rare move for wildlife officials to give up hope on a plant or animal, but government scientists say they’ve exhausted efforts to find these 23. (AP Photo/Haven Daley

Steve Sullivan: Biology crosses all majors, all disciplines. And so our mission really is explore the connections between people, the nature of their neighborhood and the world. We want to connect you to the nature in your own backyard and help you recognize the connections you have to the whole rest of the world.

And we do that through a lot of these frankly, awesome looking specimens like this bear ahead of us, and I’ll show you a lot more cool things as we tour around.

The Origins of Extinction

Lucas: The idea of a species disappearing forever going extinct being permanently lost is fairly recent. It was first proposed by George Cuvier in 1796, as he tried to reconcile the so-called “Ohio animal,” which he later named Mastodon, with living Indian and African elephants.

Thomas Jefferson himself didn’t believe in extinction is 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia says this: ”

Steve Sullivan: Now, of course, I could teach you ecology using Petri dishes of bacteria and fungus. You might find it interesting, but the average person is not going to come in to check out these, these, these displays of fungus and, and then learn my surreptitious motive of talking about things like carrying capacity and fundamental niche and things like this. But you can see those charismatic cats over there.

A cat is basically a cat. So why do we have diversity of cats and why do they live in different places? And why does one species exclude another? So I can explore these ecological issues by using those awesome specimens and people are just going to come in because cats are cool. They want to see them.

Lucas: And after all, what reason did Thomas Jefferson have to believe in extinction? North America at the time of European settlement was home to the most numerous species on earth: the passenger pigeon.

Passenger Pigeons in Dungeons & Dragons

Steve Sullivan: The passenger pigeon is not so much a species or an individual, the way that we often like to look at things. In fact, the passenger pigeon is more like an ecological phenomenon. Passenger pigeons. As they passed over our head here in Oxford, Ohio would darken the sky like twilight.

Lucas: Ornithologist Erol Fuller put it this way:

“You have never contemplated numbers of this magnitude before it is a numerical concept beyond your experience or imagination and the sound, perhaps the ocean roars like this during a hard storm at sea, but you don’t know. A new sound trumpets across the fields: the sound of splitting timber. The weight of the massed pigeons is so great that here and there, it is too much for the trees. Their branches can no longer take the strain and they crash to the ground.

It wasn’t until the 1870s that there was any real appreciation that flocks were thinner and their appearances less frequent by the 1890s, the flocks were gone and just a few isolated individuals lingered on here and there.

A year or so into the new century and the only surviving representatives of the species were a few captive individuals divided between aviaries in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Cincinnati. The last of these was Martha. She died at the Cincinnati zoo on September 1st, 1914.

I know there is a passenger pigeon here. That’s her? Him?

Steve Sullivan: Him, you know, this quite frankly is maybe the most tatty looking of all of the passenger pigeons, still extant. But to some extent, I think that makes it really an icon for the species. When a visitor comes in here and sees something displayed in such a reverential way, uh they’re, they’re kind of confused who cares,

Lucas: Yeah. We’ve got a full glass case as high as my chest. Dark stained would, uh, in its own corner of honor. And yet inside is something that, uh, definitely does not look. The part,

Steve Sullivan: Arguably it’s, it’s slightly better than a mere pile of feathers and an abused pile of feathers at that. But in fact, this is really iconic of the species. If you are willing to look past the superficial.

Ugliness frankly, of, of the, the bent form and the shattered feathers. And you can see a little bit of glistening peach and some just subtle shades of gray that go from almost midnight to just before Dawn, you can see streaks of what must have once been white. In amongst the pink, you’ll see Pearl of, of blue and green reflecting. The eyes that were red, the beak that was jet black and shiny.

You have to take a minute to ponder that and to recognize the beauty that once was, and that is no longer thanks solely to the decisions that humans like you and I, that literally our ancestors made, they deprived. Of seeing the beauty of this species personally. And so what are we doing today as individuals to deprive future generations of those same opportunities?

Lucas: And if I can flip that around to a positive, what are we doing that is, uh, going to preserve. Uh, foster species like this for future generations.

Steve Sullivan: Absolutely. And one of the things that I like to point out to all the students is that by mere effort of you’re studying this thing, this demonstrates that you have a level of care and.

Thereby you as an individual can be a leader of your community. We recognize that as humans, one of our major tasks as humans across our, our time on the planet has been to cause extinction we’re really good at that. We work hard at it, whether we’re doing so consciously or not at this point, we are doing so either consciously or intentionally ignore.

And so most of our neighbors don’t know what a passenger pigeon is. Don’t care what a passenger pigeon is. They don’t care what it represents. Those of us who do know, have an opportunity to be leaders in our neighborhoods, to our direct neighbors, to those in our peer groups, to those in our broader community and say, look, we should care about this. And then we can articulate the reasons why.

Use D&D to talk about extinction, conservation, and the natural history of fantasy.

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Lucas: So let’s do what D&D players do best: tell stories. This is the story of a girl, just one of billions, who became the icon of her generation and the end of a movement. Her name was Martha. Welcome to Making a Monster: Extinction.

Each episode will feature an extinct animal and the real life stranger than fiction history of their existence. Then we’ll condense the work of thousands of years of storytelling into half an hour.

As we convert these animals into magical counterparts for Dungeons & Dragons. This is a companion podcast to Book of Extinction, a monster manual of extinct species I’m developing with Mage Hand Press, makers of some of the most successful and innovative D&D expansions of the last decade, including Dark Matter and Valda’s Spire of Secrets. Book of Extinction will contain more than 70 species when it comes to Kickstarter in 2022, including the Pyrenean ibex, Carolina parakeet, Yangtze river dolphin, and of course, the dodo. The first three of these animals, passenger pigeon, great auk, and Tasmanian tiger, are already released as a pay-what-you-want preview through Mage Hand Press’ online store. You can go to to find the link and download the preview for free, but any money you decide to pay for the work we’ve put into the preview already will go to support conservation organizations working to preserve endangered species and ensure that no more of them end up gone for good.

This is a big swing for me and for Mage Hand Press, but we’re so excited to give people a way to make a difference in the climate crisis, through this project. Again, for everything you need to know, and to see future episodes of the podcast, visit that’s S C I N T I L L

This episode was produced by me, Lucas Zellers, and features the voices of Joe Gaylord, DM’s Guild designer; Matt Davids of; and my friend Nat Biggs, who played A. E. Van Vogt for my April Fool’s episode on the displacer beast. Original theme music for Making a Monster Extinction is by Alex Miller, the Boy King of Idaho.

A very special, thanks to Steve Sullivan, director of the Hefner Museum of Natural History and Miami University, who spent hours talking to me about ecology extinction and how they relate to D&D. I couldn’t have done this without them. I’d really encourage you, if you’re within driving distance of Oxford, Ohio to go and visit the museum.

Painting D&D Miniatures Realistically

Lucas: If you’re really lucky, you might spot something from Steve’s own collection of D&D

Steve Sullivan: I brought these guys into establish my, my bone fides, right?

Lucas: I was gonna say, you have hidden in amongst or right next to a frog brain. You’ve hidden, you’ve hidden D&D minis.

Steve Sullivan: Yeah.

Lucas: Did you paint these?

Steve Sullivan: Yeah, these are my kids and I painted stuff together and

Lucas: these are fantastic. You’ve gone, you’ve gone an extra step and based them, uh, which is how I know you’re serious.

Steve Sullivan: Well, and I’ve textured the skin and, and all of my stuff is, is based on biological principles. So when I looked at this, these points have to be obsidian. Which means they basically have to be black because most obsidian is black. This guy being a cave troll type organism, his skin is necessarily going to be amelanistic. Energy it can be equated to money, and his body is not going to spend the money necessary to create melanin if he’s living out of the sun all the time. But if he’s accompanying this, this fire mage then, uh, he’s necessarily also going to be sunburned and quite badly. But you can see on the very bottom of his belly, it’s quite shaded. And so it’s extra pale.

But he’s also got a lot of filth around, you know, his leather boots and things. And so he’s actually growing a bit of fungus, maybe yeast, because these early organisms that are actually closely related to us, you know, fungus is made out of keratin. So it’s closer to animals than it is to plants and it likes to attack us.

And so he’s succumbing to that because he’s from an environment where he has to deal with some very dominant forms of fungus in these deep, dark cool caves. And when he comes up here to the warmth, he’s having a hard time thermal regulating, and he’s also exposed to a great diversity of fungus. And so they’re kind of attacking him, um, wherever he has contact first.

And the spots that get aired off better are baked by the sun better are, are less attacked.

Lucas: I really want to play D&D with you.. That is way more thought than I’ve ever heard anyone give to the shape and coloration of a cave troll. That’s fantastic!

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Next Episode: The Passenger Pigeon

Passenger pigeons were once the most numerous bird on the planet, a swarm of Tiny beasts covering the sky.

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