8 Prehistoric Creatures from Your Nightmares

We see fossil reconstructions or illustrations of species that have come and gone and we sometimes say, "Come on now, that can't be real!" Or maybe you don't, but I have, because these creatures look like they came from a horror film or a child's most frightening nightmares.

1. The Creature: Platybelodon
The Nightmare: Pink Elephants on Parade on Acid

Quick -how many prehistoric relatives of the elephant can you name? Mammoth, mastodon, and ...that's it, right? Meet Platybelodon. Even the minds who conceived Heffalumps and Snuffleupagus would consider this creature to be too ridiculous to believe. When I first encountered Platybelodon in this illustration by DeviantART member Sk00tie, I thought the artist had made up the species. But no...

Platybelodon was a "shovel tusker". Ten million years ago, it roamed Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America, eating trees and plants that grow in swamps. It is one of several ancient elephants from the Gomphothere family. See more of Platybelodon in a YouTube video.

2. The Creature: Bullockornis
The Nightmare: The Demon Duck of Doom

What looks a bit like a duck, but is eight feet tall and eats wombats? Bullockornis planei was a bird that roamed Australia as far back as 15 million years ago, but possibly also survived to see mankind.

A giant skull found a few years ago led scientists to believe Bullockornis was omnivorous, and devoured other animals whole. This bird earned the nickname the Demon Duck of Doom.

3. The Creature: Opabinia
The Nightmare: Nunu with Five Eyes

Opabinia regalis flourished 500 million years ago during the Cambrian period. This odd creature had five eyes, two of them on stalks, and a proboscis resembling a vacuum cleaner hose that made up about a third of its body length. Just think of the Teletubbies' Nunu with extra eyeballs! Fossil specimens are pretty small -shorter than your finger- but there is speculation that these were juveniles and the creature may have grown bigger. Opabinia is a creature that so far defies classification. Should it be labeled an arthropod or an annelid, related to crustaceans or trilobites? It may be an ancient ancestor of them all. Illustration by Nobu Tamura.

4. The Creature: Quetzalcoatlus
The Nightmare: Flying Dragon Wants to Eat You

Quetzalcoatlus northropi may have been the largest flying animal ever. The estimated wingspan gleaned from fossil evidence is 36 feet, although earlier extrapolations put it as high as 60 feet. Either way, that's a big animal. It took a lot of muscle power to get 500 pounds off the ground! This pterosaur lived about 65 million years ago. Quetzalcoatlus northropi ate dinosaurs for breakfast, which is enough to fuel anyone's nightmares. Illustration by Mark Witton and Darren Naish.

5. The Creature: Titanoboa
The Nightmare: Big Snake

The name Titanoboa means "big snake." The species Titanoboa cerrejonensis is the biggest snake ever discovered, which was about four years ago in Colombia. The fossil remains of a couple of dozen such snakes were studied, leading scientists to estimate their size at a maximum 15 meters, or 50 feet! Titanoboa cerrejonensis was a constrictor that lived around 60 million years ago, eating animals the size of crocodiles -whole. Illustration by Jason Bourque.

6. The Creature: Dunkleosteus
The Nighmare: Jaws with Armor

You might have seen this scary fish, if you had been around 400 million years ago. Dunkleosteus was an armored fish that grew to be twenty feet long and had sharp teeth in massive jaws that could slice through bones. Scientists have been divided on how to classify Dunkleosteus among fish, since evidence discovered at different times links it to different types of existing species.

DeviantART member DNK-Anais gives us this illustration of how terrifying Dunkleosteus would seem to other sea creatures and any land animal that got too close.

7. The Creature: Procoptodon
The Nightmare: A Hairy Grinch with Claws

Procoptodon goliah was a giant short-faced kangaroo. It was about twice the weight of the modern red kangaroo (but not much taller), and hopped around on feet that had one toe each! It ate only plants, and could stretch to reach branches 12 feet above ground. This kangaroo had eyes that faced forward, which gave it the ability to see depth and a resemblance to the Grinch from the Dr. Seuss book. There were also smaller species of Procoptodon, which were all extinct by 40,000 years ago.

8. The Creature: Pristerognathus
The Nightmare: What's Behind the "Beware of Dog" Sign

The genus Pristerognathus were animals that lived 250 million years ago in Africa. They are Therocephalians, which are reptiles that have mammalian characteristics. One of the few things we know about Pristerognathus is that it was carnivorous and had a huge head compared to the rest of its body, and most of that head was jaws and teeth. However, the whole animal was about the size of a house cat. Illustration by Dmitri Bogdanov.

See also: The Bigger They Are: 10 Ice Age Giants

8 Surprising Uses for Peeps

You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.


Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.


Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)


If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.


With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).


Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.


There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.


We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.


Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.


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