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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

20 Bizarre Beasts From Ancient Bestiaries

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The first true bestiaries—exhaustive anthologies of the natural world—appeared in Ancient Greece. Originally, they were just a means of cataloguing and describing all known animals and plants (both real and mythical), and in particular those that had curative or otherwise noteworthy uses. But by the Medieval period, when bestiaries became hugely popular, these descriptions had become overtly religious and allegorical, with many creatures listed as having miraculous powers, or depicted as symbols of redemption, salvation, and rebirth: the humble pelican, for instance, was once said to have the ability to bring its dead offspring back to life by piercing its side and feeding them its own blood (according to one 13th century French scholar at least).

One thing all bestiaries had in common, however, was that they mixed fact with fiction. Genuine accounts of real-life animals, birds, insects, plants, and gemstones were listed alongside ludicrous descriptions of bizarre, legendary animals—from magical birds that produced light-emitting feathers to bulls that could spray furlong-long jets of scalding poop. Twenty fantastic beasts precisely like these are listed here.

1. BONNACON

According to the Roman naturalist and scholar Pliny the Elder, the bonnacon or bonasus was a bull-like creature that lived in the ancient kingdom of Paeonia (modern-day Macedonia) that had a horse’s mane and backward-facing horns that were curled in on themselves in such a way that they were essentially useless. Instead, in order to defend itself, the bonnacon was supposedly able to spray flaming hot dung out of its behind, leaving a stinking trail as long as 300 feet behind it. Anyone who was unlucky enough to touch or be struck by the dung was burned as if they’d touched fire—although some descriptions claim that the dung actually set fire to anything it touched.

2. ECHENEIS

The echeneis, or “sucking-fish,” was described in a number of ancient bestiaries as a fish that, although small in size, was so strong that if it were to latch its flattened head onto the hull of a ship, it could hold it in place like an anchor. Some accounts claim the echeneis had feet, but according to Aristotle, this was incorrect—their fins just looked like feet. Pliny the Elder, meanwhile, claimed that it had the power to “hinder litigations in court,” stop “fluxes of the womb in pregnant women” (thereby “holding back the offspring till the time of birth”), and was even responsible for Marc Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Although Pliny might have been exaggerating things a little, the legendary echeneis was nevertheless based on a real-life sea creature: the remora, or “sharksucker,” a bizarre eel-like fish whose dorsal fin has been modified into a flat suction pad, allowing it to attach itself to the undersides of larger marine animals. 

3. PARANDRUS

The parandrus was an ox-sized, hoofed animal of Ethiopia with a stag’s head, large branching horns, and long shaggy brown fur. It didn’t stay brown for long, however, as the parandrus could apparently change the color of its fur to blend in with its environment. 

4. HERCINIA

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The hercinia was a legendary bird believed to inhabit the Hercynian Forest surrounding the River Rhine in southern Germany. What made the hercinia special was its glowing plumage, which produced so much light that anyone walking through the forest at night could use the bird or one of its feathers as a lantern.

5. SCITALIS

The scitalis was an iridescent serpent whose scales glistened so amazingly that they would stun anyone or anything that saw it, thereby stopping them in their tracks so that they could be caught or bitten. All that iridescence came with a cost, however: the scitalis often became so hot that its skin would burn, forcing it to shed its skin even in winter when all other snakes are hibernating. 

6. ALERION

A popular image in heraldry, the alerion was said to be the king of all birds. Fire-colored and larger than an eagle, its wings were as sharp as razors. Supposedly, only one pair of alerions were ever alive at one time: When she was 60 years old, the female would lay two eggs that would then take 60 days to hatch, whereupon the parents would immediately fly far out to sea to drown themselves. The two chicks would then be reared by all the other birds until they reached adulthood. 

7. CYNOCEPHALUS

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Cynocephalus literally means “dog head,” and according to some ancient writers was the name of a species of dog-faced apes native to Ethiopia. According to Aesop, they always give birth to twins, one of which the mother was always destined to love and the other to hate. The apes are such affectionate mothers, however, that they could hug their babies to death if they were not careful. 

8. CALADRIUS

The caladrius was a pure-white bird said only to live in kings’ houses. Among its many bizarre qualities, the caladrius supposedly had the ability to diagnose (and cure) illness: If it were to look at you while you were unwell, then you could rest assured that you would eventually recover (the bird takes the sickness into itself and flies up to the sun, where the sickness gets burned off); but if it looked away, you were destined to die of your illness. And as if that weren’t useful enough for medieval physicians, the caladrius’ poop was also said to be able to cure cataracts.

9. LEONTOPHONE

Ancient descriptions of the leontophone ranged from a boar-like mammal to a tiny worm or serpent, but one thing was always mentioned: The leontophone was lethally poisonous to lions. If a lion ever caught one, it would tear it apart with its claws rather than its mouth, because if it ate or was bitten by a leontophone, it would die instantly. According to one 12th century bestiary, in order to kill a lion, a leontophone should first be caught and killed, then burned and its ashes sprinkled on a piece of meat. The meat should then be placed at a crossroads as bait for the lion, which would die immediately on eating it.

10. JACULUS

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The jaculus, or “javelin-snake,” was a flying viper that lived in the tops of trees and killed its prey by falling onto it, or by firing itself through the air “like a missile from a catapult,” according to Pliny.

11. COROCOTTA

The corocotta or leucrota was the legendary offspring of a hyena and a lioness. The size of an ass with a horse-like head, the back legs of a stag, and hooved feet, the corocotta had a mouth that stretched from ear to ear and, according to Pliny, “an unbroken ridge of bone in each jaw, forming a continuous tooth without any gum.” As if that weren’t strange enough, they also apparently had the ability to mimic people’s voices.

12. SAWFISH

Unlike the real-life sawfish’s bizarre saw-shaped face, the legendary sawfish took its name from a saw-toothed crest that ran along the length of its back, which it supposedly used to cut into the hulls of ships by swimming underneath them, so that it could drown and then devour the crew. When it wasn’t busy doing that, the sawfish used its enormous wings to fly clear of the sea and race ships—although it could only sustain itself for a distance of around 30-40 furlongs (3¾-5 miles/6-8km), after which it would plunge back beneath the waves.

13. ONOCENTAUR

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If a centaur had the head and torso of a man with the body and legs of a horse, then the onocentaur was its less impressive relative: it had the head and torso of a man, and the body and legs of a donkey.

14. YALE

Native to Ethiopia, the yale was described by Pliny as the size of a hippo, black or tawny-brown in color, with the tail of an elephant and two coiled horns. Its skin was so thick that it couldn’t be wounded, and when two males fought, they would hold one horn forward and the other backward depending on their needs. It was probably inspired by early descriptions of the African water buffalo.

15. WETHER

In English, a wether is a castrated ram or goat, but in the medieval bestiaries it was the name of a specific type of sheep that was much larger and stronger than all others. The Latin name for the wether was vervix, which led the 7th century Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville to theorize that the wether’s head was naturally infested with worms (the Latin for which was vermis) and when the worms started itching, they scratched the itch by butting their heads together.

16. ALLOCAMELUS

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The allocamelus (literally “other-camel”) had the head of a donkey and the body of a camel, leading the 17th-century English writer Edward Topsell to believe it to be the offspring of a camel and a mule. In fact, it was probably based on early descriptions of a llama or an alpaca.

17. CATOBLEPAS

The Ethiopian catoblepas was a described as a sluggish, cow-like creature with a head so large and heavy that it couldn’t look upward (catoblepas means “downwards-looking” in Greek), while one smell of its breath or a glance from its bloodshot eyes could kill a man immediately. Despite that fairly unflattering description, it’s thought that the catoblepas was based on the African wildebeest.

18. CERASTES

A serpent that’s so exceptionally flexible that it appears not to have a spine, the cerastes also had two or four ram-like horns on its head that it could move independently. To hunt, it buried its body in the sand or earth, leaving just its horns exposed above the ground, which it waggled around to attract its prey. (At least, that’s according to Leonardo da Vinci.) The myth of the cerastes is probably based on the north African horned viper—whose Latin name, appropriately enough, is now Cerastes cerastes.

19. MUSCALIET

The muscaliet had the body of a hare, the tail of a squirrel, a mole’s nose, and a weasel’s ears. It nested in hollows beneath the roots of trees, but produced so much heat that it would dry the tree out from the bottom upwards and kill it.

20. MANTICORE

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The sphinx-like manticore had the head of a person, with the body of a red lion, a scorpion’s stinger, a voice like a whistle, and three rows of comb-like teeth. The lampago, meanwhile, was a tiger with the face of a man, and a satyral had a lion’s body, an antelope’s horns, and the head of an old man. All three were once popular heraldic images and often appeared on medieval coats of arms.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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