7 Mythical Beasts Created With Taxidermy

klonoaxero, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
klonoaxero, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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

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

Fur-bearing trout
LongLiveRock, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

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.

5. JACKALOPE

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.

6. WOLPERTINGER

Wolpertinger

James Steakley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

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

Wild Haggis
MyName (StaraBlazkova), Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

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.

A ‘Book Ripper’ in Herne Bay, England Is Ripping Book Pages, Then Putting Them Back on Shelves

demaerre/iStock via Getty Images
demaerre/iStock via Getty Images

Herne Bay, a town about 60 miles east of London, has fallen prey to a new kind of ripper. According to The Guardian, a criminal known as the “Book Ripper” has torn pages within about 100 books in a charity bookstore before placing them back on shelves.

“I’m trying not to be too Sherlock Holmes about it,” Ryan Campbell, chief executive of the charity Demelza, told The Guardian, “but if there’s such a thing as a quite distinctive rip, well, he or she rips the page in half horizontally and sometimes removes half the page.”

Though it’s not the most efficient way to ruin a reading experience, since the pages themselves are still legible as long as they’re left in the book, it’s still devastating to a shop that relies on the generosity of others to serve the underprivileged.

“Of course people donate these books towards the care of children with terminal illness so it’s almost like taking the collection box,” Campbell said.

Since the occasional torn page in a secondhand bookshop isn’t uncommon, booksellers didn’t immediately realize the scope of the issue, but they believe it's been happening for a few months. The Book Ripper targets bookshelves that can’t be seen from the register, and has a favorite genre to vandalize: true crime.

The local library has also reported the same pattern of damage in some of their volumes, and police are now monitoring the situation in both places.

Townspeople are monitoring the situation, too, patrolling bookstores and libraries hoping to apprehend the culprit.

“I’m a little worried about the person,” Campbell said. “It makes you think a little bit about who’s doing this and why they feel the need to do it and what’s going on in their lives.”

[h/t The Guardian]

6 Strange Maritime Mysteries

Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images
Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images

The oceans cover over 70 percent of our planet, so it's little wonder that their seemingly impenetrable depths have provided a series of fascinating mysteries, from missing ships to eerie monsters. Below are six mysteries of the deep—some of which scientists think they've at least partly explained, while others remain truly puzzling.

  1. The Mary Celeste

On December 5, 1872, the crew of the British ship the Dei Gratia spotted a vessel bobbing about 400 miles off the coast of the Azores. They approached the Mary Celeste to offer help, but after boarding the ship were shocked to find it completely unmanned. The crew had disappeared without a trace, their belongings still stowed in their quarters, six months' worth of food and drink untouched, and the valuable cargo of industrial alcohol still mostly in place. The only clues were three and a half feet of water in the hold, a missing lifeboat, and a dismantled pump. It was the beginning of an enduring mystery concerning what happened to the crew, and why they abandoned a seemingly sea-worthy vessel.

Numerous theories have been suggested, including by crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned a short story in 1884 suggesting the crew had fallen victim to an ex-slave intent on revenge. A more recent theory has pointed the finger at rough seas and the broken pump, arguing they forced the captain to issue an order to abandon ship. Since the missing crew have never been traced, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a satisfying answer to the enigma.

  1. The Yonaguni Monument

An underwater area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
An area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
Vincent Lou, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

In 1986, a diver looking for a good spot to watch hammerhead sharks off the coast of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan came across an extraordinary underwater landscape. The area reportedly looked like an ancient submerged village, with steps, holes, and triangles seemingly carved into the rocks. Ever since it was first discovered, controversy has surrounded the site that's become known as the Yonaguni Monument, with some researchers—such as marine geologist Masaaki Kimura—arguing it is a clearly manmade environment, perhaps a city thousands of years old and sunk in one of the earthquakes that plagues the region. Others believe it's a natural geological phenomenon reflecting the stratigraphy (layers) of sandstone in an area with tectonic activity. The area is open to scuba divers, so the really curious can strap on air tanks and decide for themselves.

  1. The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle has probably spawned more wild theories, column inches, and online discussion than any other ocean mystery—more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft are said to have vanished there. Although the triangle has never officially been defined, by some accounts it covers at least 500,000 square miles and lies between Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The mystery first caught the public imagination in December 1945 when Flight 19, consisting of five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers and their 14 crewmembers, were lost without a trace during a routine training operation in the area. Interest was further piqued when it was later reported that one of the search-and-rescue planes dispatched to find the missing team had also disappeared. Articles and books such as Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, first published in 1974 and having since sold over 20 million copies in 30 languages, have served to keep the mystery alive, providing potential theories both natural and supernatural. Scientists—and world-renowned insurers Lloyd’s of London—have attempted to debunk the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, offering evidence that the rate of disappearance in the vast and busy triangle is no higher than other comparable shipping lanes, but such is the power of a good story that this is one story that seems likely to continue to fascinate.

  1. The Kraken

A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, sailors told tales of an enormous sea creature with huge tentacles known as the Kraken. Stories around the mythical kraken first started appearing in Scandinavia in the 12th century, and in 1555 Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus provided an account of a sea creature with “sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes.” The stories persisted, often mentioning a creature so large it resembled an island. In his 1755 book The Natural History of Norway, Danish historian Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan described the kraken as “incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world."

Scientists have proposed that these stories might derive from sightings of giant squid (Architeuthis dux), although evidence for an even larger, yet extremely elusive, colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has also come to light. The colossal squid is found in the deepest part of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, and is thought to be up to 46 feet long and 1100 pounds. The problem is that the animal is so rare very few specimens have been found intact, and no live specimen has ever been observed, which means that estimating its exact size is difficult. Researchers have also noticed that sperm whales have been observed with large scars, and have suggested that these could be the result of violent encounters with the colossal squid, which is known to have sharp rotating hooks on the ends of their tentacles.

  1. The Treasure of the Merchant Royal

The remains of the Merchant Royal are known as one of the richest shipwrecks ever. The ship set sail from the New World in 1641 laden with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 Mexican silver bars, and thousands of precious gems—in total, a haul thought to be worth $1.3 billion today. The ship got caught in a storm and was thought to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Cornwall, England. The lost wreck became known as the “el Dorado of the seas” due to the enormous value of its cargo, and over the years numerous treasure hunters have searched fruitlessly for its final resting place, which remains undiscovered. In 2019 fishermen snagged what is thought to be the anchor from the Merchant Royal, but to date the dangerous conditions and extreme depths at which the wreck is thought to lie have meant it has remained unclaimed.

  1. Attack of the Sea Foam

In December 2011, residents of Cleveleys, England, awoke to what appeared to be a soft blanket of snow. But as locals ventured out into the streets it soon became clear that this was no snowstorm, but instead something far more puzzling. Trees, cars, roads, and houses were all wrapped in a thick, white layer of foam. The Environment Agency were quickly deployed to take samples of the sea foam, since residents were understandably concerned as to the origin of the strange, gloopy substance, fearing it might be caused by pollutants.

The dramatic images of the foam-soaked town soon had journalists flocking to the region to investigate the phenomena, but as quickly as it appeared the foam disappeared, leaving behind only a salty residue. Scientists analyzing the foam confirmed it was not caused by detergents, and instead suspected that it was caused by a rare combination of decomposing algae out at sea and strong winds, which whipped up the viscous foam and blew it into land. The phenomena has apparently occurred at other times before and since, and researchers are now working to try and understand the exceptional conditions that cause it to form so that residents can be warned when another thick blanket is set to descend.

Bonus: The Bloop—Mystery Solved

Over the years, the oceans have produced a number of eerie and often unexplained sounds. In 1997, researchers from NOAA listening for underwater volcanic activity using hydrophones (underwater microphones) noticed an extremely loud, powerful series of noises in the Pacific Ocean. The unusual din excited researchers, who soon named it “The Bloop” in reference to its unique sound.

Theories abounded as to the origin of the bloop—secret military facility, reverberations from a ship’s engine, or an enormous sea creature. The most fanciful suggestion stem from H. P. Lovecraft fans who noticed that the noise came from an area off South America where the sci-fi writer’s fictional sunken city of R’lyeh was supposed to be. They proposed that the bloop might have originated from Lovecraft’s “dead but dreaming” sea creature, Cthulhu. In 2005, however, scientists found that the mysterious sound was in fact the noise made by an icequake—or an iceberg shearing off from a glacier.

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