8 Types of Imaginary Creatures "Discovered" In Fossils

A protoceratops skeleton
A protoceratops skeleton
Karen, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

The wild and colorful mythological creatures that our ancestors dreamt up—dragons, unicorns, griffins—didn't all originate as mere flights of fancy. In some cases, ancient fossils protruding from the earth may have inspired the ideas behind these mythical monsters. In more recent years, showmen and the uninformed have deliberately displayed fossils as “evidence” of imaginary beasts—after all, monsters make great celebrities. Here are eight types of imaginary creatures once "found" in fossils.

1. Griffins

Ancient Greek authors reported that gold-seeking Scythians did battle with griffins deep in the Gobi desert, where the mythological creatures—with the bodies of lions but the beaks and wings of eagles—were said to protect the precious metal's mines. Folklorist Adrienne Mayor has convincingly argued that these Greek stories were inspired by fossils from Protoceratops dinosaurs, which once littered the Gobi desert and can still be found there in relative abundance. Like the griffin, the Protoceratops has four legs and a beak, and its elongated shoulder blades may have been interpreted as wings—although it’s not known to have been a gold-digger.

2. Cyclopes

The ancient Greeks also believed that the island of Sicily was crawling with mythical one-eyed giants known as the Cyclopes. As far back as the 1300s, scholars have pointed out that Sicily and other parts of the Mediterranean were once home to an ancient species of elephants whose enormous skulls look a lot like Cyclopes' heads. The elephant skulls, which can still be found around the area, include a large central nasal cavity where the trunk was once attached, and which could resemble a lone, large eye socket.

3. Tengu

In Japan, fossilized shark teeth have been interpreted as the long, sharp nails of the part-human, part-bird goblins known as Tengu. The fossils are called tengu-no-tsume, or “Tengu’s claw.” They are said to guard against evil spirits and to cure demoniacal possession, and are sometimes enshrined in temples as a treasure.

4. Giant Humans

Bill Faulkner, National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In Greece, the discovery of massive bones from mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses was seen as confirming the existence of mighty giants and ancestral heroes. Even St. Augustine and the prolific Jesuit writer Athanasius Kircher misidentified enormous teeth and bones from ancient mammals as evidence of giants, and the practice still hasn’t entirely died out.

According to the scholar James L. Hayward, one of the most remarkable cases of such misidentification came from eminent Swiss physician Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, who in 1726 published the 24-page treatise Homo diluvii testis ("The man who witnessed the flood"). The treatise included descriptions of fossil skeletons found in lakebeds near Oeningen, Switzerland, which were presented as if they were the remains of ancient humans who lived in the time before Noah and his ark. The treatise was cited as “evidence” of pre-flood man until 1787. Later, paleontologist Georges Cuvier correctly identified the fossils in question as belonging to a giant salamander.

5. Unicorns

iStock.com/SergeyMikhaylov

In the Middle Ages, Danish sailors brought the pointy, pale, spiraled horns of the narwhal to Europe, where people believed they were the remains of magical unicorns and possessed valuable healing powers. In fact, narwhals contributed to the idea of the unicorn horn being long and white; earlier tales had described them in a variety of shapes and colors, but the myths and legends solidified around the look we know today once narwhal horns came on the scene.

But narwhals aren’t the only animals passed off as unicorns: In 1663, German naturalist Otto von Güericke made the first-known reconstruction of Pleistocene mammals, labeling his awkward creation a two-legged “unicorn.” (His unicorn “horn” is said to be a mammoth tusk, although some sources say he used a narwhal horn atop mammoth and woolly rhinoceros bones). A reconstruction of his creation is on display near the zoo in Osnabrück, Germany.

6. Dragons

Jstuby, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A variety of creatures' remains have been said to belong to dragons, including the woolly rhinoceros. In fact, the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria once exhibited a woolly rhinoceros skull as the remains of the Lindwurm, a serpent-like dragon that terrorized the area before being slain by knights. The town’s Lindwurmbrunnen (dragon fountain), constructed in the 16th century and still on view, is based on that skull.

Fossils of lepidodendron (an ancient tree-like plant) have also been exhibited as dragon skins, and not all that long ago. Some were presented in Wales in 1851 as pieces of the body of a gigantic fossil serpent. (If you squint and don’t know any better, the leaf bases on the trunk of the plant look a little like scales.)

In Asia, dinosaur fossils have long been mistaken for dragon bones and teeth. “Dragon bones” are still sold as such by practitioners of traditional medicine in eastern and southeastern Asia, where they are said to cure madness, diarrhea, and other ailments. The medicine is actually formed from the fossils of dinosaurs and other extinct animals found in China’s fossil beds.

7. Vishnu’s Wheel

In medieval Europe, people believed that fossilized ammonites—an extinct group of marine invertebrate animals—were petrified coiled snakes, and saw them as the evidence of the work of divine figures like St. Hilda, who turned snakes into stone.

But in the Himalayas, fossil ammonites are considered sacred and thought to be the discs or wheels belonging to the Hindu god Vishnu (the four-armed god holds a disc or wheel in one of his hands). The fossils are still held in high regard by Hindus throughout India, while in Nepal and Tibet, they are seen as representing the 8-spoked wheel of the law, dharmachakra.

8. Sea Serpents

Ellis, R. Monsters of the Sea, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Specimens from “sea serpents” have been identified as partially decayed basking sharks, deformed snakes, and masses of floating seaweed. But in the 1840s, conman Albert Koch went across the clay fields of Clarke County, Alabama, looking for bones from Basilosaurus, a 40-million-year old genus of a newly-discovered, giant, reptilian-like whale. Koch assembled the bones he discovered into a 114-foot-long creature he labeled Hydroarchos, the "water king." The abomination was twice the size of the real Basilosaurus and an obvious composite rather than one complete skeleton, but that didn't stop King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia from buying the thing for his Royal Anatomical Museum. (Koch later created another one for a museum owner in Chicago.) In 1845, Koch exhibited the “great sea serpent” at the Apollo Saloon in New York City for an entry fee of 25 cents.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

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10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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10 Ways Monsters Were Made (According to a Medieval Doctor)

On Monsters and Marvels
On Monsters and Marvels

Ambrose Pare was a medieval doctor who served as a battlefield surgeon for kings Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III and made great advances in pathology and surgical techniques. (He's the one who convinced people to stop pouring boiling oil in open wounds!) In addition to his many advances, he also had a lot of ideas about how monsters and monstrosities were created. Besides “God’s will” and “evil,” here are 10 ways Pare believed that monsters like man-goats and brain scorpions were created, from his book On Monsters and Marvels.

1. Menstrual Blood

If your baby is born with the head of a parrot, you probably only have yourself—and your menstrual blood—to blame. Pare warned that women “sullied by menstrual blood will conceive monsters.” Also, if your kid is sick a lot, it’s probably because your baby touched your dirty period. Pare wrote, “women who will have conceived during her period will engender those inclined to leprosy, scurvy, gout, scrofula, and more …”

2. Too Much Sperm

Bad news, men: Pare thought that men with “too great an abundance of matter” could produce a baby with “two heads, four arms, four legs, six digits on the hands and feet, or other things.” He used a woman who gave birth to a child with “five horns approximating those of a ram” on its head as an example.

3. Imaginative Faculty

Pare wrote about a woman with two heads who went begging from door to door but was cast out of the area where she lived because doctors believed that if a pregnant woman saw her, she “could spoil the fruit of the pregnant women by the apprehension and ideas which might remain in their imaginative faculty.”

4. Crossing Your Legs

Pare believed that if your womb was too narrow, you could birth a misshapen child. He also argued that women who crossed their legs or bound their stomachs too tightly could give birth to monstrous putrefied babies.

5. Eating Fruit and Grasses

According to Pare, women who didn't eat the right food could potentially give birth to monsters. He noted that this happened to the women of Naples frequently because they preferred to eat fruit and grasses “and other bad-tasting and unnutritious [sic] things, which generate such animals through putrefaction, than to eat good nourishing food, just in order to be sparing and elegant and trim.”

6. Sniffing Basil

Pare wrote of an Italian who died of an extreme headache. When the man’s head was opened after his death, the doctor found a scorpion inside his brain, which was attributed to the man’s habit of sniffing basil.

7. Throwing a Mouse Between Your Teats

According to Pare, “some have attributed monsters to being procreated from the corruption of foul and filthy foods that women eat, or want to eat, or that they abhor looking upon just after they conceived; or [they say] that someone may have tossed something between their teats, such as a cherry, plum, frog, mouse or other thing that can render infants monstrous.” What other things, Pare?

8. Showing a Pregnant Woman Food

Modern doctors place a lot of dietary restrictions on pregnant women—no sushi, no lunch meat, watch the mercury—but none of those restrictions could hold a candle to Pare, who wrote about “how dangerous” it was to “disturb a pregnant woman, to show her or remind her of some food she cannot enjoy immediately.” In doing so, you were risking the woman potentially giving to a baby that looked like the food you had shown her.

9. Constellations

According to Pare, a farmer who had a cow with a human head was pardoned for his alleged crime against cows because an astrologer did some calculations and discovered that the monster was born of a constellation and not sin—at least not this time.

10. The Devil (obviously)

If your monster hasn’t been created by an excess of basil or cinching your belt too tight around your pregnant belly, it was probably made by a demon. Pare wrote that the Devil and his demons take the form of Centaurs, snakes, and other monsters who “howl at night and make noise as if they were in chains: they move benches, tables, trestles; rock the children, play on the chessboard, turn the pages of books, count money; and one hears them walking about in the chamber; they open doors and windows and cast dishes to the ground, break pots and glasses and make other racket …”