10 Mythical Beasts Inspired by Prehistoric Animals

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Could These Be the Real Creatures Behind Rocs, Griffins and Unicorns?

You may have read in the news about the "Siberian Unicorn," a 20,000-year-old, one-horned Elasmotherium that presumably gave birth to the Unicorn legend. The fact is that, at the root of many myths and legends, you'll find a small nugget of truth: an event, a person, or an animal that inspired a vast mythology over the course of thousands of years. That seems to be the case with many legendary creatures, which as fantastical as they are today may have been based, in the distant past, on actual, living animals that haven't been glimpsed by humans for millennia. On the following slides, you'll learn about 10 tantalizing mythical beasts that may have been inspired by prehistoric animals, ranging from the Griffin to the Roc to the ever-present dragons beloved by fantasy writers.

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The Griffin, Inspired by Protoceratops

The Griffin--a four-legged, big-clawed, bird-beaked lion that lays its eggs in nests--first popped up in Greek literature around the 7th century B.C., shortly after Greek traders made contact with Scythian merchants to the east. At least one folklorist proposes that the Griffin is based on the central Asian Protoceratops, a pig-sized dinosaur characterized by its four legs, bird-like beak, and, you guessed it, habit of laying its eggs in ground-based clutches. Scythian nomads would have had ample opportunity to stumble across Protoceratops fossils during their treks across the Mongolian wastelands, and lacking any knowledge of life during the Mesozoic Era, could easily have imagined them as left by a Griffin-like creature.

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The Unicorn, Inspired by Elasmotherium

When discussing the origins of the Unicorn myth, it's important to differentiate between European Unicorns--which seem to have been inspired by long-horned narwhals--and Asian Unicorns, the origins of which are cloaked in prehistory. The Asian variety may well have been inspired by Elasmotherium, a long-horned rhinoceros ancestor that prowled the plains of Eurasia until as recently as 10,000 years ago (as witness that recent Siberian discovery), shortly after the last Ice Age; for example, one Chinese scroll refers to a "quadruped with the body of a deer, the tail of a cow, the head of a sheep, the limbs of a horse, the hooves of a cow, and a big horn." (Of course, European Unicorns may themselves have been inspired by their eastern cousins, the result of a cross-continent game of "telephone.")

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The Devil's Toenails, Inspired by Gryphaea

Did the Dark Ages inhabitants of England really believe that the fossils of Gryphaea--a genus of oyster that went extinct millions of years ago--were the Devil's Toenails? Well, there's no mistaking the resemblance: these thick, gnarly, curved shells certainly look like the cast-off cuticles of Lucifer, especially if the Evil One happened to suffer from an incurable case of toenail fungus. While it's unclear if the Devil's Toenails were really taken all that literally by simple-minded peasants (see also the "Snake Stones" described in slide #10), we do know that they were a popular folk remedy for rheumatism hundreds of years ago, though one imagines they might have been more effective in curing aching feet.

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The Roc, Inspired by Aepyornis

A giant, flying bird of prey that could reputably carry off a child, an adult, or even a full-grown elephant, the Roc was a popular fixture of early Arabic folk tales, the legend of which slowly made its way to western Europe. One possible inspiration for the Roc was the Elephant Bird of Madagascar (genus name Aepyornis), a 10-foot-tall, half-ton ratite that only went extinct in the 16th century, could easily have been described to Arabic traders by this island's inhabitants, and the giant eggs of which were exported to curiosity collections worldwide. Telling against this theory, though, is the inconvenient fact that the Elephant Bird was completely flightless, and probably subsisted on fruits rather than people and elephants!

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The Cyclops, Inspired by Deinotherium

The Cyclops--a race of giant, one-eyed men--featured prominently in ancient Greek and Roman literature, especially Homer's Odyssey, in which Ulysses does battle with the ornery Cyclops Polyphemus. One theory, inspired by the recent discovery of a Deinotherium fossil on the Greek island of Crete, is that the Cyclops was inspired by this prehistoric elephant (or perhaps one of the related Dwarf Elephants that dotted Mediterranean islands thousands of years ago). How could the two-eyed Deinotherium have inspired a one-eyed monster? Well, the skulls of fossilized elephants have prominent single holes where the trunk attached--and one can easily imagine a naive Roman or Greek sheepherder inventing the "one-eyed monster" myth when confronted with this artifact.

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The Jackalope, Inspired by Ceratogaulus

Okay, this one is a bit of a stretch. There's no doubt that the Jackalope--a mythical jackrabbit equipped with antelope horns--bears a superficial resemblance to Ceratogaulus, the Horned Gopher, a tiny mammal of Pleistocene North America equipped with two prominent, comical-looking horns on the end of its snout. The only catch is that the Horned Gopher went extinct a million years ago, well before myth-making humans arrived in North America. While it's possible that the ancestral memory of horned rodents like Ceratogaulus has persisted down to modern times, a more likely explanation for the Jackalope myth is that it was simply manufactured out of whole cloth by a pair of Wyoming brothers in the 1930's.

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The Bunyip, Inspired by Diprotodon

Given how many giant marsupials once roamed Pleistocene Australia, it's no surprise that this continent's Aborigines developed myths about legendary beasts. The Bunyip, a crocodile-shaped, dog-faced swamp monster with enormous tusks, may well have been inspired by ancestral memories of the two-ton Diprotodon, aka the Giant Wombat, which went extinct just as the first humans were settling Australia. (If not the Giant Wombat, other possible templates for the Bunyip include the hippopotamus-like Zygomaturus and Dromornis, better known as the Thunder Bird.) It's also possible that the Bunyip wasn't based on a specific animal, but was an imaginative interpretation of dinosaur and megafauna mammal bones discovered by Aboriginal peoples.

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The Monster of Troy, Inspired by Samotherium

Here's one of the odder (possible) links between ancient myth and ancient wildlife. The Monster of Troy, also known as the Trojan Cetus, was a sea-creature summoned by the water god Poseidon to lay waste to the city of Troy; in the folklore, it was slain in combat by Hercules. The only visual depiction of this "monster" is on a Greek vase dating from the 6th century B.C. Richard Ellis, a noted marine biologist associated with the American Museum of Natural History, hypothesizes that the Monster of Troy was inspired by Samotherium--not a dinosaur, or a marine mammal, but a prehistoric giraffe of late Cenozoic Eurasia and Africa. No Greeks could possibly have encountered Samotherium, which went extinct millions of years before the rise of civilization, but the creator of the vase may have been in possession of a fossilized skull.

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Snake Stones, Inspired by Ammonites

Ammonites, large, coiled mollusks that resembled (but were not directly ancestral to) the modern Nautilus, were once an essential link in the undersea food chain, persisting in the world's oceans for over 300 million years up to the K/T Extinction Event. The fossils of ammonites look like coiled snakes, and in England, there is a tradition that St. Hilda caused an infestation of snakes to curl up and turn to stone, allowing her to build a monastery and convent in the town of Whitby. So common are fossil specimens of these "snake stones" that other countries have developed their own myths; in Greece, an ammonite under your pillow was said to cause pleasant dreams, and German farmers might plunk an ammonite in an empty milk pail to persuade their cows to lactate.

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Dragons, Inspired by Dinosaurs

As is the case with Unicorns (see slide #3), the dragon myth developed jointly in two cultures: the nation-states of western Europe and the empires of the far east. Given their roots in the deep past, it's impossible to know exactly which prehistoric creature, or creatures, inspired tales of dragons; fossilized dinosaur skulls, tails and claws probably played their part, as did the Saber-Toothed Tiger, the Giant Sloth, and the giant Australian monitor lizard Megalania. It is telling, though, how many dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles reference dragons in their names, either with the Greek root "draco" (Dracorex, Ikrandraco), or the Chinese root "long" (Guanlong, Xiongguanlong, and countless others). Dragons may not be inspired by dinosaurs, but paleontologists are certainly inspired by dragons!