Before our understanding of evolution came along, fossils used to really throw naturalists for a loop. Many mythical creatures and urban legends got their start from the discovery of unidentified fossils.
Griffin vs. Protoceratops
The griffin features in legends from all over Europe and Africa. It has been theorized that the myth is based on fossils of Protoceratops, a dinosaur from the Cretaceous period with a large neck frill and a horny beak. The sight of its skull and large shoulder blades partially buried in the sands of the Gobi Desert likely inspired travelers to imagine the griffin’s part-eagle, part-lion physique.
Cyclops vs. Elephant
It’s not that hard to look at the huge nasal cavities in an elephant skull and think, “giant one-eyed man” — especially if the tusks are missing.
Many of the strange creatures described in medieval bestiaries originated when travelers from foreign lands tried to describe the exotic animals they’d seen. The only way they knew how to describe the creatures’ appearances was by using morphological features of more banal animals that they were already familiar with. These communication struggles, combined with a returning traveler’s natural tendency to exaggerate, explains some of these absurd creations.
Monoceros vs. Rhinoceros
According to the Aberdeen bestiary, the monoceros has “the head of a stag, the tail of a boar, elephant's feet and a horse's body. A horn four feet long projects from his head.” It most likely derived from the Indian rhinoceros.
Manticore vs. Tiger
The manticore, with its lion’s body, human head armed with three rows of razor-sharp teeth, and viper’s tail, was probably an exceptionally bored person’s attempt at describing a tiger.
Sea serpent vs. giant oarfish
Reports of monstrous sea serpents most likely stemmed from sightings of the giant oarfish, which is the world’s longest bony fish with a worldwide distribution. The highest record for its length is 36 feet.
Jackalope vs. Shope papilloma virus
The legendary jackrabbit-antelope hybrid has a somber real-life basis: rabbits infected with the Shope papilloma virus grow keratinized tumors that may resemble horns or antlers. Hunters who created jackalope taxidermy mounts by grafting antlers onto jackrabbit heads were likely inspired when they saw the infected rabbits in the wild.