On the Origin of Species: Dunsparce
Dunsparce has the odd distinction of being one of the most forgotten and one of the most popular Pokémon in Generation II. Indeed, the latter honor seems in part to have sprung from the former. Dunsparce was overlooked for many reasons: it's an unremarkable Normal type with stats that are low, but not sufficiently low to grant it any sort of notoriety. It doesn't evolve and appears only rarely in one location in its native Johto. It also doesn't have any obvious ties to a real-world creature, and looks... frankly bizarre. It seemed as if everyone forgot about Dunsparce. Then, later on, they remembered it, and it became notable precisely because it was the Pokémon everyone always seemed to forget. There isn't any apparent logic to Dunsparce, it's just... there, shamelessly sitting in the Pokédex, being weird.
I've received more requests for an article on Dunsparce than any other Pokémon. And not without cause, because Dunsparce does have a specific origin, just one that would be obscure to most non-Japanese players.
Dunsparce's Japanese name, Nokocchi (ノコッチ) is an anagram of Tsuchinoko (ツチノコ or 槌の子). This translates to 'hammer-spawn', and is the term used in Japan's Kansai region – the area on which Johto was based – to describe a legendary snake-like creature said to live deep in the mountains of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu.
While the tsuchinoko superficially resembles a snake, there are some unique elements to its appearance. Its body is flat, with a pronounced bulge in the middle, and it has a short, narrow tail. It has venomous fangs and is sometimes depicted as having horns. Beyond its odd appearance, there are some fanciful tales about the tsuchinoko's habits. Some accounts have it able to mimic human speech or actually carry on conversations. A trickster and compulsive liar, it would delight in playing pranks on travelers, but was a fairly harmless beast despite the fangs. It was also said to be very fond of alcohol.
Another common thread in tales of the tsuchinoko is unusual forms of movement. There are a lot of different stories about how the tsuchinoko moves, and the only thing they agree on is that it doesn't move like a normal snake. One commonly described method of movement resembles that of the inchworm: shifting the back end forwards, causing the spine to bend upwards in an inverted U shape, and then flattening back by moving the front end forwards. It's also seen in some illustrations tumbling end over end or even grasping its tail in its mouth and rolling along like a wheel.
The other method of movement commonly associated with the tsuchinoko is jumping. It seems a little unlikely, given that most snakes aren't built for jumping and the tsuchinoko's body is hardly aerodynamic, but it's said that the portly snake can make athletic leaps of a few meters at a time.
The tsuchinoko is one of Japan's most popular legendary creatures, and its legend has been around for a long, long time. It's mentioned in the Kojiki, the oldest surviving book in Japan, which dates from 712. Its likeness can also be found on pottery from about as far back as civilization is known to have existed on the islands.
What separates the tsuchinoko from the youkai this column occasionally covers is the fact that many people believe it to be a real animal, and are keen to prove its existence. Now, that's not to say there aren't people who believe in, say, tsukumogami, but those that do would likely agree that they're supernatural, rather than something that could by understood and analyzed by science. The tsuchinoko is an example of a cryptid, much like the chupacabra or the Loch Ness Monster: a creature believed by some to exist, but not recognized by scientific consensus.
It should probably be noted that those who believe the tsuchinoko is real probably don't ascribe all of its mythical qualities to it, such as its ability to talk. Various towns have offered large rewards for the successful capture of a tsuchinoko, and while none of them have had to pay up yet, there are still sightings from time to time.
So could the tsuchinoko actually exist? It's certainly feasible that there are undiscovered snake species living in the mountains of Japan, but given that the intense interest in proving the tsuchinoko's existence has thus far turned up no conclusive evidence, I'd say it's highly unlikely that there's a real tsuchinoko out there. That being said, I don't necessarily believe the sightings to be fabrications: there are numerous creatures that share some of the tsuchinoko's traits and could conceivably be mistaken for one. For instance, a snake after a very large meal might have a bulge in its middle as the food works its way down. More recent sightings could be blue-tongued skinks, which are now sometimes kept as exotic pets in Japan. These are fat-bodied lizards with stubby limbs that might be easily missed, and so we might be able to attribute a few more sightings to escaped pets.
There may even be an explanation for the bizarre image of the tsuchinoko moving by forming a loop with its body and rolling. American folklore describes something very similar in the legend of the hoop snake, and the ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a snake eating its own tail, representing infinity. It's possible that this imagery might have been inspired by a real observation. While it's no way to get around, snakes have sometimes been known to swallow their own tails. This is usually seen in snakes that prey on other snakes: the tail is mistaken for prey, and once the snake has begun swallowing, it's very difficult to get the tail out again.
Finally, there are snakes with the ability to "fly". It's gliding really, but the snakes of the Chrysopelea genus can travel through the air for up to 100 meters, undulating their bodies in a specific way in order to stay airborne. While these snakes aren't found in Japan and don't bear any real resemblance to the tsuchinoko, stories of flying snakes from nearby countries might well have had some influence on the original legend.
Dunsparce's comically small wings, and the Pokédex's references to its ability to hover briefly, do appear to be references to the tsuchinoko's unlikely prowess in the air. Its extreme scarcity echoes the tsuchinoko's status as an elusive cryptid, and its oddly non-threatening appearance is a reminder that compared to the many monsters of Japanese mythology, the tsuchinoko is positively cute and cuddly. I think it's quite fitting that a mythical creature so beloved in Japan inspired a Pokémon that Western fans ended up embracing despite – or in many cases because of – its apparent oddness.