In 1842, New Yorkers were lured into P. T. Barnum's American Museum by a banner depicting three mermaids with shapely bare chests and long hair. Inside, the creature that greeted visitors was not a beautiful siren at all, but a grotesque half-monkey, half-fish, its face seemingly frozen in a blood-curdling scream. While Barnum’s animal mash-up was not the first “Fiji mermaid," as he dubbed the creature, it sparked a frenzy for them in the 19th century. You can find surviving examples among the treasures of the British Museum in London, and lurking in the rafters of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle.
Legends of animal hybrids and chimeric beasts date back to antiquity, but for proof, we want evidence. And over the centuries there have been many taxidermists happy to supply it. Whether it's the North American jackalope or Icelandic fur-bearing trout, the colorful history of mythical creatures made from taxidermy is full of imaginative—and disturbing—concoctions that stretch belief, and sometimes fool even the best of naturalists.
1. JENNY HANIVER
If you’ve ever watched a ray or skate fish and thought that its nostrils and mouth looked like a flat face swimming by, you were on the same wavelength as the fabricators of the jenny haniver. In the 1976 book Animal Fakes & Frauds, author Peter Dance explains that the jenny haniver is “a manifestation of that terrible monster, the basilik or cockatrice.” He adds that the basilik was long depicted as a venomous snake, but by the 13th century “it had become a frightful monster and had acquired several more equally absurd attributes.” Among these was the fact that it was said to be born from a perfectly spherical egg “laid by a seven-year-old cock bird during the days of Sirius the dog star.”
Needless to say, these parameters gave a monster-maker a lot to work with. In 1558, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner published a woodcut of a jenny haniver, adding that the medicine peddlers “are accustomed to dry rays and fashion their skeletons into varied and wonderful shapes.” Fabrication of jenny hanivers continued well into the 20th century; while researching his book, Dance was able to buy one in a shop in London's Soho. They are still occasionally made today, although conservation efforts have made their production and sale more difficult.
2. FUR-BEARING TROUT
How do fish survive in frigid water? Disregarding the facts of scientific biology, some tall tales have declared that fish in the coldest climates grow fur. In the 2003 book The Beasts That Hide from Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals, Karl Shuker cites an example in the Royal Museum of Scotland that arrived with a label declaring that it was captured in Lake Superior off the coast of Ontario, and that its dense fur was probably an adaptation to "the extreme penetrating coldness of the water."
The woman who brought the specimen to the museum was told, of course, that it was a fake. There are no furry fish; the fur-bearing trout is merely covered with white rabbit fur. Nevertheless, the myth has reach, from the hairy Icelandic Lodsilungur—purported to be an inedible torment by demons—to the supposedly furry trout of Montana. Conveniently, the North American variety obliterates itself if caught: As explained in a 1929 issue of Montana Wildlife, the change in temperature when taken out of the water "is so great that the fish explodes." However, there may be some reality behind the lore: The fungus Saprolegnia can cause fish to grow a cottony mold on their flesh.
3. WHITE-RUSSIAN SHORE-MUDDLER
The scientific name for the Vitrysk Strandmuddlare, or White-Russian Shore-muddler, is Lirpa lirpa. Flip those two words around and you’ll get a hint that this animal—with a wild boar piglet head, alligator tusks, squirrel tail, and duck legs—is a bit of tomfoolery.
In The Impossible Zoo: An Encyclopedia of Fabulous Beasts and Mythical Monsters, author Leo Ruickbie says that the sole taxidermied specimen, created in the 1960s, was "at one point exhibited every year at the Natural History Museum in Göteborg, Sweden, on 1 April.” According to Dance, it was created by museum director Dr. Bengt Hubendick to increase attendance, and the museum “benefited considerably from the annual display of its strangest inmate.”
4. BARE-FRONTED HOODWINK
In the 1950s, ornithologist Maury FJ Meiklejohn theorized that there was a reason for all the creatures that befuddled birdwatchers with ambiguous calls and obscure feather patterns: an unidentified species. As Rachel Warren-Chadd and Marianne Taylor relate in Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend, the Bare-fronted Hoodwink was imagined as "a representation of all birds that cannot be properly identified by the birdwatcher."
In a 1950 journal article about the species, Meiklejohn named it Dissimulatrix spuria and noted that it was most frequently seen by beginner birdwatchers. (Not everyone was amused: In a 1951 issue of Auk journal [PDF], one H. G. Deignan lamented: "One could wish that articles of this nature be omitted from the pages of serious journals.") A taxidermy version mixing together parts from a crow, duck, and plover was created by William Stirling, and is part of the collections of National Museums Scotland. It was exhibited in 1975 with photographs of the bird, all blurred.
Popular as postcard fodder in the American West, the jackalope is a portmanteau of jackrabbit and antelope. Its creation is often credited to Douglas Herrick of Wyoming, who in the 1930s returned home from hunting with a rabbit, which he put down next to a pair of deer antlers—and an idea was born. The fateful collision eventually led to the town of Douglas, Wyoming being nicknamed "Home of the Jackalope," with jackalope hunting licenses available one day a year.
Although Herrick may have been the first to create taxidermy “proof,” the idea of a horned hare has roots that go much deeper than American folklore. The Lepus cornutus can be found in medieval manuscripts, and a rabbit with antlers can be seen among the animals in Jan Brueghel’s 17th-century "The Virgin and Child in a Painting surrounded by Fruit and Flowers." In a 2014 article for WIRED, Matt Simon investigated the proliferation of this imagery, noting that back in the 1930s, perhaps around the same time Herrick was hunting rabbits, an American scientist found that the "horns" on some so-called jackalopes were actually tumors caused by a viral infection. Incredibly, the papillomaviruses that caused them—related to human papillomavirus, or HPV—first took root in a 300-million-year-old shared ancestor of birds, mammals, and reptiles, making truth indeed stranger than the jackalope fiction.
The wolpertinger is like an extreme jackalope. It has the head of a rabbit and the body of a squirrel, as well as antlers, vampiric fangs, and wings, although the recipe for the abomination is far from standardized. It’s similar to the skvader, a winged Swedish hare made in 1918 by taxidermist Rudolf Granberg.
At the German Hunting and Fishing Museum in Munich, visitors can see taxidermy “specimens” of these creatures said to be from Bavaria. These wolpertingers prowl a diorama of an alpine forest, displaying fangs, antlers, wings, duck feet, and all manner of freakish augmentations. The exact origin of the wolpertinger is unclear, although stuffed versions date to the 19th century. According to Germany's The Local, those who want to witness these beings in the wild, supposedly born from unholy love between species, "must be an attractive, single woman" and "visit a forest in the Bavarian Alps during a full moon, accompanied by the 'right man.'" Surely the most romantic of first date options.
7. WILD HAGGIS
Ever wondered how haggis, that most famed and feared of Scottish dishes, is made? Some claim you must first catch a wild haggis, a small mammal shaped like a sausage that has shorter legs on one side of its body than the other, the better to walk in the steep Scottish Highlands. Depending on which side is more stunted, the haggis can supposedly only run clockwise or counter-clockwise, so it’s hunted by sprinting in the other direction.
There is of course no such creature—haggis is a concoction of sheep innards—but taxidermists have long pranked gullible tourists. The Guardian reported that when the haggis maker Hall's of Broxburn polled 1000 American visitors, 33 percent believed haggis was an animal (and 23 percent boasted they could catch one). And if you believe that, someone has a haggis whistle to sell you.