8 Types of Imaginary Creatures "Discovered" In Fossils

The wild and colorful mythological creatures that our ancestors dreamt up—dragons, unicorns, griffins—didn't all originate as mere flights of fancy. In some cases, ancient fossils protruding from the earth may have inspired the ideas behind these mythical monsters. In more recent years, showmen and the uninformed have deliberately displayed fossils as “evidence” of imaginary beasts—after all, monsters make great celebrities. Here are eight types of imaginary creatures once "found" in fossils.

1. Griffins 

Ancient Greek authors reported that gold-seeking Scythians did battle with griffins deep in the Gobi desert, where the mythological creatures—with the bodies of lions but the beaks and wings of eagles—were said to protect the precious metal's mines. Folklorist Adrienne Mayor has convincingly argued that these Greek stories were inspired by fossils from Protoceratops dinosaurs, which once littered the Gobi desert and can still be found there in relative abundance. Like the griffin, the Protoceratops has four legs and a beak, and its elongated shoulder blades may have been interpreted as wings—although it’s not known to have been a gold-digger. 

2. Cyclopes 

The ancient Greeks also believed that the island of Sicily was crawling with mythical one-eyed giants known as the Cyclopes. As far back as the 1300s, scholars have pointed out that Sicily and other parts of the Mediterranean were once home to an ancient species of elephants whose enormous skulls look a lot like Cyclopes' heads. The elephant skulls, which can still be found around the area, include a large central nasal cavity where the trunk was once attached, and which could resemble a lone, large eye socket. 

3. Tengu 

In Japan, fossilized shark teeth have been interpreted as the long, sharp nails of the part-human, part-bird goblins known as Tengu. The fossils are called tengu-no-tsume, or “Tengu’s claw.” They are said to guard against evil spirits and to cure demoniacal possession, and are sometimes enshrined in temples as a treasure.

4. Giant Humans

In Greece, the discovery of massive bones from mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses was seen as confirming the existence of mighty giants and ancestral heroes. Even St. Augustine and the prolific Jesuit writer Athanasius Kircher misidentified enormous teeth and bones from ancient mammals as evidence of giants, and the practice still hasn’t entirely died out.

According to the scholar James L. Hayward, one of the most remarkable cases of such misidentification came from eminent Swiss physician Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, who in 1726 published the 24-page treatise Homo diluvii testis ("The man who witnessed the flood"). The treatise included descriptions of fossil skeletons found in lakebeds near Oeningen, Switzerland, which were presented as if they were the remains of ancient humans who lived in the time before Noah and his ark. The treatise was cited as “evidence” of pre-flood man until 1787. Later, paleontologist Georges Cuvier correctly identified the fossils in question as belonging to a giant salamander. 

5. Unicorns

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In the Middle Ages, Danish sailors brought the pointy, pale, spiraled horns of the narwhal to Europe, where people believed they were the remains of magical unicorns and possessed valuable healing powers. In fact, narwhals contributed to the idea of the unicorn horn being long and white; earlier tales had described them in a variety of shapes and colors, but the myths and legends solidified around the look we know today once narwhal horns came on the scene. 

But narwhals aren’t the only animals passed off as unicorns: In 1663, German naturalist Otto von Güericke made the first-known reconstruction of Pleistocene mammals, labeling his awkward creation a two-legged “unicorn.” (His unicorn “horn” is said to be a mammoth tusk, although some sources say he used a narwhal horn atop mammoth and woolly rhinoceros bones). A reconstruction of his creation is on display near the zoo in Osnabrück, Germany.

6. Dragons 

A variety of creatures' remains have been said to belong to dragons, including the woolly rhinoceros. In fact, the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria once exhibited a woolly rhinoceros skull as the remains of the Lindwurm, a serpent-like dragon that terrorized the area before being slain by knights. The town’s Lindwurmbrunnen (dragon fountain), constructed in the 16th century and still on view, is based on that skull. 

Fossils of lepidodendron (an ancient tree-like plant) have also been exhibited as dragon skins, and not all that long ago. Some were presented in Wales in 1851 as pieces of the body of a gigantic fossil serpent. (If you squint and don’t know any better, the leaf bases on the trunk of the plant look a little like scales.) 

In Asia, dinosaur fossils have long been mistaken for dragon bones and teeth. “Dragon bones” are still sold as such by practitioners of traditional medicine in eastern and southeastern Asia, where they are said to cure madness, diarrhea, and other ailments. The medicine is actually formed from the fossils of dinosaurs and other extinct animals found in China’s fossil beds.

7. Vishnu’s Wheel 

In medieval Europe, people believed that fossilized ammonites—an extinct group of marine invertebrate animals—were petrified coiled snakes, and saw them as the evidence of the work of divine figures like St. Hilda, who turned snakes into stone.

But in the Himalayas, fossil ammonites are considered sacred and thought to be the discs or wheels belonging to the Hindu god Vishnu (the four-armed god holds a disc or wheel in one of his hands). The fossils are still held in high regard by Hindus throughout India, while in Nepal and Tibet, they are seen as representing the 8-spoked wheel of the law, dharmachakra. 

8. Sea Serpents

Specimens from “sea serpents” have been identified as partially decayed basking sharks, deformed snakes, and masses of floating seaweed. But in the 1840s, conman Albert Koch went across the clay fields of Clarke County, Alabama, looking for bones from Basilosaurus, a 40-million-year old genus of a newly-discovered, giant, reptilian-like whale. Koch assembled the bones he discovered into a 114-foot-long creature he labeled Hydroarchos, the "water king." The abomination was twice the size of the real Basilosaurus and an obvious composite rather than one complete skeleton, but that didn't stop King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia from buying the thing for his Royal Anatomical Museum. (Koch later created another one for a museum owner in Chicago.) In 1845, Koch exhibited the “great sea serpent” at the Apollo Saloon in New York City for an entry fee of 25 cents. 

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18 Things to Look for the Next Time You Watch Jurassic Park
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Twenty-five years ago, director Steven Spielberg created a movie that was 65 million years in the making. With cutting-edge CG effects and a rousing adventure story only the filmmaker behind Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark could conjure, Jurassic Park, based on the novel by author Michael Crichton, went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time at the time (today, it maintains the 17th position). Now, in celebration of the original film’s 25th anniversary and with the fifth installment of the dino franchise about to hit theaters, it’s time to look back to where it all began in case you missed a few things.

Here are 18 details to look out for next time you take a trip to Jurassic Park.

1. A CAMERAMAN PROTECTED JOPHERY ... AND HIS CAMERA.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

The film’s opening scene features the park game warden, Robert Muldoon, and a group of handlers attempting to transport velociraptors from a cage into their paddock, but it goes terribly wrong. Jophery, the “gatekeeper,” is thrown off the top of the cage as the alpha raptor attempts to escape.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

In the shot when Jophery falls toward the camera before being pulled into the cage and devoured by a pack of hungry dinos, the camera operator’s hand can be seen in the bottom right of the frame making sure the stuntperson doesn’t fall into the camera.

2. LIFE FINDS A WAY ... IN ALAN GRANT’S SEAT BELT.

The scene when the helicopter carrying Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) descends into Jurassic Park features a clever and unorthodox bit of foreshadowing.

When the copter hits a bit of turbulence—with Hammond giving the group a spirited "Yahoo!”—the occupants scramble to click their seat belts. Grant tries to buckle up, but finds two “female” ends, making it impossible to snap in for safety. After getting some verbal help from Hammond, Grant grabs both straps and ties them together as they come in for the rough landing.

Using a bit of resourcefulness, Grant goes against the odds to find a way to make it work—just like the dinosaurs in the park are able to reproduce despite being bred as females.

3. CGI MADE THE MOVIE’S DINOSAUR SUPERVISOR “EXTINCT.”

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

A bit of cheeky dialogue between Grant and Malcolm as the group makes their way into the park perfectly showcases their dueling personalities. When mulling over the implications of a park filled with living dinosaurs, the paleontologist opines, "I think we're out of a job," to which the chaotician responds, "Don't you mean extinct?"

The line is a deliberate reference to something effects pioneer Phil Tippett, who developed “go-motion” animation for the film, said to Spielberg before the director settled on primarily using groundbreaking CGI for the movie (“I think I’m extinct”). Instead of leaving the production, Tippett stayed on to serve as a consultant by helping the CG animators create realistic movements for the digital dinos.

4. JOHN HAMMOND’S JEEP GETS GREAT MILEAGE.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

Keep an eye out for the Jeeps that Hammond uses to buzz around and show off the park to his first guests. JP29 is the same truck used by the characters Gray and Zach to escape from the old section of the park in 2015’s Jurassic World.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

Grant and Ellie’s JP18 truck can also be seen in the garage in Jurassic World when Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard’s characters, Owen and Claire, try to escape from the Indominus rex.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures


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5. THE NEXT JURASSIC PARK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE IN EUROPE.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

When Hammond pitches the grand ideas of the park to the group in the dining room—during the bragged-about meal of Chilean sea bass—corporate-focused slides can be seen in the background that suggest Hammond anticipated Jurassic Park becoming more popular than both “sports” and "zoos."

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

They also hint at Hammond’s “Future Attractions.” He was also planning to expand internationally to Jurassic Park Europe.

6. MR. DNA’S VOICE SHOULD SOUND FAMILIAR.

The animated Mr. DNA sequence impresses Grant and the gang because the little cartoon DNA strand explains exactly how dinosaurs were brought back from extinction, but animation fans should be impressed for a different reason.

The voice behind Mr. DNA is voiceover artist Greg Burson, who also provided the voices at various points for famous Looney Tunes characters like Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Pepe Le Pew. Burson was also one of the voiceover artists to voice Hanna-Barbera characters like Huckleberry Hound, QuickDraw McGraw, Snagglepuss and Yogi Bear.

7. THE VOICE YOU HEARD WAS, IN FACT, RICHARD KILEY.

Hammond gets to utter the famous phrase, “Welcome to Jurassic Park” after showing off the newly non-extinct creatures to Grant and Sattler, but we get to hear it again during the tour from the car’s virtual tour guide. “The voice you’re now hearing is Richard Kiley,” Hammond tells the group. “We spared no expense.”

Hammond spared no expense because Kiley, with his distinct baritone, was an esteemed actor of stage and screen who won Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Musical for Redhead in 1959 and Man of La Mancha in 1966, as well as three Emmys and two Golden Globes for his TV work.

Kiley was also mentioned as the tour guide in author Michael Crichton’s source novel, and, appropriately enough, voices the Jurassic Park Jungle River Cruise at Universal Studios in Orlando.

8. NEDRY IS A JAWS FAN.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

While Hammond berates Nedry (Wayne Knight) in the command center for the park’s problems, keep an eye on the computer programmer’s computer screen past all the garbage, Jolt Cola cans, and candy wrappers: He’s watching Spielberg’s seminal shark attack hit, Jaws.

9. NEDRY DRESSES LIKE THE GOONIES.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
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It turns out that Jaws isn’t Nedry’s only Spielberg fandom, and that concealed dinosaur embryos in a fake shaving cream can aren’t the only thing Nedry is hiding.

The programmer’s wardrobe—with his Hawaiian shirt, Members Only jacket, and yellow rain slicker—is almost exactly the same as the clothes that Chunk, Mouth, and Mikey wear in the Spielberg-produced adventure classic The Goonies.

10. NEDRY’S DESK GIVES A NOD TO THE FATHER OF THE ATOMIC BOMB.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

The photo on Nedry’s computer isn’t some stern, pipe-smoking father figure; the little mushroom cloud doodle above the photo should let you know that it’s none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project.

The nod carries a symbolic, cautionary tale significance: Much like Hammond, Oppenheimer also used fundamental science for his own gain. Or, as Malcolm said, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

11. THE PARK’S CUTTING-EDGE SECURITY CAMERA FOOTAGE IS JUST A QUICKTIME VIDEO.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

When Nedry calls the dock worker while watching live security footage to coordinate his escape with the dinosaur embryos, the webcam seen on the screen is actually a Quicktime video instead of a live feed. The progress bar at the bottom of the desktop window, and the mouse cursor over the “Play” button, are dead giveaways.

12. JURASSIC PARK’S SCIENTISTS ARE GREAT AT GENETICS, BUT BAD AT SPELLING.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

When Nedry breaks into the embryo chamber to steal the individual dinosaur types, two of them are spelled incorrectly. “Stegasaurus” should be Stegosaurus and “Tyranosaurus” should be Tyrannosaurus.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

They’re not so great with numbers either: The faux shaving cream canister Nedry uses to steal the dinos off the island only holds 10 embryos even though during their meeting in San Jose, Dodson told Nedry to take 15 different species.

13. TIM MAKES SOME REAL-LIFE AND FAKE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS.

While fanboying out about getting to hang out with Dr. Alan Grant, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) presents alternate theories to Grant’s assertion that dinosaurs evolved into birds by citing a book by “a guy named Bakker.” This line refers to Robert T. Bakker, the real-life American paleontologist who helped shape the modern theory that some dinosaurs were endothermic (warm-blooded) and who served as an advisor on the film.

Tim can also be seen carrying Grant’s book, Dinosaur Detectives, a prop created for the film that supposedly features a foreword by Sir Richard Attenborough (the actor who plays Hammond), and co-written by Michael Backes, a real-life software developer who helped Crichton fact check the original novel and the guy who created the the animated computer graphics used in the movie's control room sequences.

14. OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE FROM WHERE THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO APPEAR.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

During Sattler and Muldoon’s daring escape with an injured Malcolm from a rampaging T. rex, the dinosaur comes so close to chomping on the driver’s side of their Jeep that the side mirror’s “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear” message can be seen. In reality, such a safety warning is only required on the opposite side because passenger mirrors are convex as a way to limit blind spots.

15. THE MERCHANDISE IN THE GIFT SHOP IS REAL.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

During the scene where Sattler and Hammond eat ice cream and debate the failure of the park, The Making of Jurassic Park book seen in the park’s fictional gift shop is a real book about the making of the movie, written by authors Don Shay and Jody Duncan.

16. THE RAPTOR IN THE KITCHEN NEEDED SOME HELP STANDING UP.

A screen grab from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)
Universal Pictures

The raptors in the movie may be smart enough to open doors, but they can’t stand on their own two feet. If you look to the back left of the raptor that opens the door to the kitchen while hunting for Lex and Tim, you can see a hand steady the raptor puppet so it doesn’t fall over. Once the scene cuts to two raptors in the kitchen those shots are largely CGI.

17. LOOK CLOSELY FOR THE DINO DNA ALL SPELLED OUT.

As Grant, Sattler, and the kids hide in the vents in the climactic velociraptor finale in the Visitor’s Center, the letters GATC can be seen reflected on the skin of one of the raptors searching for her prey. These letters represent the nucleobases that form the base pairs of DNA—a nod to the building blocks of life that created the raptors in the first place.

18. THERE’S AN INCREDIBLE DISAPPEARING RAPTOR.

Just in the nick of time in the movie’s finale, the T. rex snatches a pouncing raptor out of thin air and saves Grant and the gang. But if you look closely, a visual effects mistake causes the CGI raptor to disappear for a single frame and then reappear before the rex chomps down for the kill.

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Dinosaurs Had Dandruff Problems, Too
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One of the most compelling aspects of paleontology is its ability to surprise even the most well-versed dinosaur scholars. Every fossil holds the potential to shed new light on how these prehistoric creatures lived, ate, and thrived.

Now, scientists have learned some dinos would have benefited from a medicated shampoo.

A study published in Nature Communications examining 125-million-year-old fossils discovered in China demonstrates that dinos expressed a condition common to humans: Their skin would flake off, creating tiny dandruff specks. The paper helps provide an explanation for how dinosaurs managed to molt, or shed skin in an effort to create tougher exterior tissue.

The specimens consisted of skin and feathers from three different non-avian dinosaurs—the crow-sized Microraptor and the larger Beipiaosaurus and Sinornithosaurus—and one bird, Confuciusornis, all from the Early Cretaceous period. The feathers were dotted with white, 1-2 millimeter blobs that initially puzzled scientists, who eventually visualized them with an ion beam microscope. Researchers confirmed them to be flakes of skin composed of corneocytes, tough cells containing keratin. The flecks suggested that these dinosaurs molted by shedding skin like modern birds instead of casting off chunks of skin like other reptiles.

The corneocytes of today's birds contain fats and loosely packed keratin, which allows birds to stay cool during heat-intensive activity like flying. The dino corneocytes were densely packed with keratin, and they probably wouldn't have provided much of a cooling effect. That tells scientists that the bird-like dinosaurs didn't spend too much time in the air.

If they didn't fly, why the feathers? It probably had to do with keeping warm and providing camouflage from both predators and prey. Researchers hope to continue their studies on the plumage to see what else they can learn.

[h/t Popular Science]

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