12 Animals That Were Mistaken For Mythical Creatures

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Vote up the animals you could confuse with mythical creatures.

From noble unicorns to mischievous kappa, mythical creatures around the world weren't just conjured up out of thin air. Instead, mythical creatures were sometimes simple cases of mistaken identity that took on a life of their own over the years.

Gradually, people invented mythical creatures as explanations for things they observed in the natural world: People may have caught a brief glimpse of an animal, and that may have been enough to send their imagination into overdrive. Animals mistaken for mythical creatures include manatees, giant squids, and coyotes - under the right conditions, these beings became mermaids, kraken, and chupacabras. 

Like fictional animals that were once believed to be real, mythical critters also reflect the culture that imagined them. Medieval Christendom, for example, reimagined unicorns according to its belief system. Similarly, when people came across fossilized remains of prehistoric animals that they had never seen before, they had no way of conceptualizing or understanding them. So they interpreted them in their own mythology, seeing them as evidence of long-gone creatures from an earlier era of mankind.

All of the animals on this list have been mistaken for mythical creatures - and thus have been springboards for cautionary tales, dark legends, and magical myths that reveal the boundlessness of the human imagination.

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  • 1
    1,219 VOTES

    Norsemen Thought The Giant Squid Was The Ship-Destroying Kraken

    The kraken is one of the most terrifying creatures to come out of Nordic lore. Scandinavian sailors long reported seeing giant, many-tentacled monsters in the sea that could tear a ship apart. Writers even featured them in their epic stories: Hafgufa, a kraken-like monster, appeared in Orvar-Oddr, a saga from 13th-century Iceland.

    In 1755, historian Erik Pontoppidan noted that krakens were so big, they appeared as islands rising from the sea:

    Here and there a larger rising is observed like sand-banks, on which various kinds of small Fishes are seen continuously leaping about till they role [sic] off into the water from the sides of it; at last several bright points or horns appear, which grow thicker and thicker the higher they rise above the surface of the water, and sometimes they stand up as high and as large as the masts of middle-siz'd vessels.

    Taking a scientific approach to the stories of the terrifying sea monster, Carl Linnaeus - the famous classifier and namer of the natural world - tried to interpret the kraken as a known animal. He believed the kraken was a cephalopod, the same category that included octopi and squids. 

    Indeed, Linnaeus's categorization was basically correct. Researchers believe that a real marine animal may have fueled the kraken legend: the giant squid. Giant squids could potentially grow up to around 66 feet long, so that is in the ballpark of what sailors claimed to have seen in the water. They also have many tentacles, big eyes, and hunt alone, similar to the monster that haunted the dreams of sailors.

    1,219 votes
  • 2
    1,023 VOTES

    Many Seafarers May Have Mistaken The Oarfish For Sea Serpents

    Sea serpents have featured in marine lore for millennia. They even go back to ancient Greece, when the legendary hero Perseus supposedly vanquished a sea serpent. Centuries later, sailors still traded stories of terrifying sea serpents. Writer Olaus Magnus described one sea serpent in his 16th-century history of Sweden: a 200-foot-long serpent called Soe Orm. The serpentine monster had "a growth of hairs of two feet in length hanging from the neck, sharp scales of a dark brown color, and brilliant flaming eyes."

    The mythical Soe Orm and other sea serpents may have simply been a case of mistaken identity. Some scientists believe that mariners sighted actual marine life that they misinterpreted as monstrous sea serpents. One of the possible species that could have been misidentified as a sea serpent: the oarfish, "the world's longest bony fish."

    To be fair, it's easy to see why oarfish would have freaked out mariners of yore. With its bony, serpentine body and impressive size - it can grow up to 50 feet long - the oarfish probably would not have been a welcome sight. 

    1,023 votes
  • 3
    850 VOTES

    The Skull Of A Woolly Rhinoceros Was Once Believed To Be A Dragon's Skull

    Dragons may be the stuff of fantasy, but medieval Europeans believed that dragons were evil creatures that left chaos, mischief, and bad vibes in their wake. As such, dragons featured heavily in medieval lore, and heroes were heralded for slaying dragons.

    Residents of Klagenfurt, Austria, even included a dragon in the story of their town's origins: A dragon once wreaked havoc on the town until two dragon-slayers defeated the beast. In 1335, residents found a large, mysterious skull in a quarry and quickly claimed that it had belonged to the troublesome dragon. They proudly displayed the conquered dragon's skull in the town hall.

    The only problem? It turns out it wasn't a dragon's skull at all. In 1840, paleontologist Franz Unger took the wind out of Klagenfurt's sail when he examined the skull and concluded that it actually belonged to a woolly rhinoceros. Unlike dragons, woolly rhinos actually existed: They roamed the earth during the Ice Age but went extinct. Given the size of woolly rhinos and their dragon-like skull shape, it's understandable that the medieval residents of Klagenfurt would have assumed they had found a dragon skull. 

    Woolly rhinos weren't the only beings to have their bones mistaken for dragons. Many mistakenly believed that dinosaur bones were actually dragon bones. To be fair, dinosaurs aren't far off from dragons - well, minus the ability to breathe fire. As herpetologist Rachel Keeffe explained, extinct pterosaurs may be the closest thing the earth has ever had to dragons:

    They fly, they're reptilian, they have head ornamentation and they're just really cool. [...] Think of a pterodactyl. They are an extinct lineage of flying reptiles, and even though a lot of people associate them together, they are not dinosaurs; they are their own lineage. The largest one when it was standing on all four legs was the size of a giraffe. So they're very interesting, very dragony in my opinion.

    850 votes
  • Once upon a time, humans believed that unicorns weren't fantastic beasts - they believed unicorns were real, or had once been real. Ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder even described unicorns in his tome Natural History, which he wrote in the first century CE:

    The unicorn is the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead. Its cry is a deep bellow.

    Pliny's image of a unicorn more or less held up for the next several centuries, albeit with some modifications.

    By the Middle Ages, Europeans had incorporated the unicorn into their Christian worldview: They assigned Christian attributes to the unicorn, and imagined the animal as a Christ-like symbol of sacrifice. For these reasons, they interpreted the unicorn as a noble creature - European aristocrats and royal households even adopted the image of the unicorn for their heraldry. Underscoring the animal's purity and nobility, artists depicted unicorns as white creatures and their horns in light colors.

    The rare unicorn was also magical, they claimed. Since unicorns were believed to be pure creatures, their horns were said to contain healing properties. Royals and high-ranking nobles also believed that unicorn horns could detect poison. They spared no expense to acquire them - Queen Elizabeth I's unicorn horn was worth an estimated £10,000, a staggering sum in the 16th century. Sometimes, they even refashioned them as goblets or crushed them up to consume as a powder.

    Though scholars agree that unicorns were probably inspired by rhinoceroses, the unicorn horns that medieval and early-modern elites collected were not rhino horns. So what were they? Narwhal tusks.

    In the Middle Ages, Norse merchants developed a thriving trade network that included narwhal tusks. They sold these tusks to Europeans, who recognized them as unicorn horns. A narwhal's tusk isn't a horn - it's actually a giant tooth that grows out of a male narwhal's head. With their spiraled shape, ivory color, and great length - narwhal tusks can grow around 8 feet long - narwhal tusks looked strikingly similar to how artists depicted unicorn horns in tapestries and paintings. 

    680 votes
  • 5
    657 VOTES

    Villagers Could Have Thought A Japanese Giant Salamander Was The River-Dwelling Kappa

    One of the most troublesome creatures in Japanese folklore is the kappa. Traditionally, the kappa were river-dwelling spirits whose behavior ranged from the mischievous to the murderous - they pranked, drowned, and devoured humans and animals alike. But they weren't all bad - in some myths, they taught humans how to set bones. Greenish and scaly, the kappa was supposed to look like a cross between a human and an amphibian and stood as tall as a 10-year-old.

    Though these mythological critters may sound like something out of Creature from the Black Lagoon, they may have been based on real animals: Japanese giant salamanders. Giant salamanders can grow up to 5 feet or so in size - in other words, roughly the length of a 10-year-old. They also grab their prey, just like the kappa. It's not just their physicality and behavior that's similar; they share a habitat. Like the mythical kappa, giant salamanders also live near rivers and shallow bodies of water. 

    657 votes
  • Griffins were part-lion, part-eagle creatures that appeared in the mythology of the ancient world. The griffin featured in the lore of the Scythians, people who lived in the steppes straddling Europe and Asia from the 800s BCE to the 300s CE. According to the Scythians, griffins fiercely guarded gold reserves.

    How did ancient Scythians come up with griffins? Scholar Adrienne Mayor offered one credible explanation: Ancient Scythians may have come across fossilized dinosaur bones in gold mines. Indeed, that might explain why Scythians mythologized that griffins always guarded gold. The dinosaur Protoceratops, for example, fits the profile for griffins. As writer David Quammen explained:

    Protoceratops in particular, with its beaked face, its bony collar frill sweeping backward like wings, and its lack of conspicuous horns (such as those on Triceratops and other late ceratopsians), might have been combined with living eagles, lions known by reputation from Greece and Persia, Caspian tigers then surviving in Scythia, and a bit of nervous fantasy, to produce griffins.

    573 votes