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University of Houston Digital Library
University of Houston Digital Library

12 Fantastic Drawings of Fictional Creatures from a 17th Century Book

University of Houston Digital Library
University of Houston Digital Library

Published in 1658, The History of Four-Footed Beasts, Serpents and Insects presents a catalog of the known animals at the time in several volumes (that link takes you to Volume 1). Compiled by English clergyman Edward Topsell, the collection is based largely on the earlier Latin work by Konrad Gesner. Interspersed among the imaginative depictions of all sorts of animals from the antelope to the wolf and many different kinds of goats are more fictional fauna like satyrs and dragons.

1. Aegopithecus

Aegopithecus looks more like our traditional understanding of a satyr than the entry for half-man half-goat later on. The name later got applied to an early anthropoid that lived around 33 million years ago.

2. Monster

At first you may think it's the eerily human-like profile on this unnamed monster that makes it especially frightening, but a second look reveals giant chicken feet only on the hind legs. Which should terrify anyone who's ever ticked off a rooster.

3. Dragon

These dragons don't have legs like modern interpretations; they are literally giant winged serpents.

4. Gulon

As you may notice in the picture, the artist has chosen to depict the gulon excreting amid a pile of bones. This was not some random slander against the mythical Scandinavian creature. The gulon, who is described as a cross between a cat and a dog, was best known for his bizarre eating habits. After violently gorging himself beyond the point of satiation,"he seeketh for some narrow passage betwixt two trees, and there drawth through his body, by pressing whereof, he driveth out the meat which he had eaten."

5. Hydra

By the time the catalog was collected, there were no living hydras, but rumors of a seven-headed serpent carcass in Venice seemed enough to corroborate the tale of Hercules and Hydra.

6. Lamia

The catalog admits that the term "lamia" has historically been applied to a range of beasts and even fish. Topsells explains that perhaps this stems from a myth about a beautiful young woman, Lamia, who caught the eye of Jupiter and bore several sons by the god. When Juno learned of her husband's infidelity, she cursed Lamia, killing her sons and condemning her to perpetual sleepless mourning. Jupiter, in turn, granted his ex-lover the ability to shape-shift—which still doesn't explain why she chose the image you see above.

7. Man Ape

Half man, half ape. Looks like a cross between a scarecrow and a wooden human model from art class.

8. Mantichora

With the head of a man, the body of a lion and the tail of a dragon, the mantichora was often used in medieval times as a symbol of the Devil.

9. Satyre

Topsell writes that, unlike the Aegopithecus above, real satyres do not have goat-like features but are rather a breed of ape, often thought to be the shape taken by the Devil on earth.

10. Sea Serpent

Looks like an eel to me.

11. Sphinga or Sphinx

"If a man do first of all perceive or discern these natural sphinges, before the beast perceive or discern the man, he shall be safe," Topsell writes, "but if the beast first decry the man, then it is mortal to the man."

12. Unicorn

Of all the creatures, Topsell dedicates perhaps the most time to the unicorn. Accounts of the curative properties of the horn are detailed and varied but, the author admits, it is precisely these almost unbelievable claims that call into question the existence of such a magical creature.

All photos courtesy of University of Houston Digital Library

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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iStock

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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