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A Velodona togata as recorded in 1910's Cephalopod Atlas, a groundbreaking compendium on the deep sea. Even though this octopus is not mythical, the wonder with which naturalists viewed it for the first time clearly shows in this whimsical illustration.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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This is a mythological ichthyocentaur, which was believed to be part human, part fish, and part horse. It's depicted here in a 1573 illustrated map of Scandinavia.British Library/University of Chicago Press
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Two dragon-like whales attack a ship as sailors try to scare them away with barrels and trumpet music. This scene is depicted in Olaus Magnus' 1539 Carta Marina, a map of the sea. Unfortunately, this was a common portrayal of whales at the time despite their docile behavior. British Library/University of Chicago Press
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A "boa," "hydra," or sea dragon of sorts as depicted in John Ashton's Curious Creatures in Zoology which was based on the works of earlier naturalists. According to Ashton, these creatures were found in 1890s Italy.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A so-called Gallus monstrosus, or giant cockerel, with a snake's tail as imagined in the 16th century. According to the Royal Society, Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi combined detailed descriptions of real snakes with more fanciful accounts of creatures related to him by merchants and travelers.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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These might look like pigs but they are actually supposed to be elephants. Taken from the Rochester Bestiary from the 13th century.Wikimedia Commons
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A "Great Fish-Lizard," from 1896's Extinct monsters: a Popular Account of Some of the Larger Forms of Ancient Animal Life.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Drawing of a hydra-like serpent from the 19th century.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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An illustration of a crocodile. It was believed that crocodiles were a yellow color and so their name derives from the Latin word "crocus" or saffron, which is a yellowy spice. Wikimedia Commons
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This is an illustration of a megatherium or "Great Ground Sloth." These 13-foot mammals roamed the Amazon for about 5.3 million years before succumbing to a mass extinction.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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According to 16th-century Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, this is a fearsome kraken.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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An elephant as drawn by Italian zoologists in the 15th century. British Library
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Dragons commonly appear in historical lore in many different cultures around the world. Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A couple of mermaids appear a few pages from an ostrich in Ashton's compendium.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Here is a giant prehistoric armadillo as imagined in 1896's Extinct Animals. Known also as a glyptodon, these creatures were about the size of a car and probably coexisted alongside humans for thousands of years.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A peculiar-looking antelope from The History of Four-Booted Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell. It was published in 1658.University of Houston Digital Library
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An unusual giraffe as drawn by Noè Bianco circa 1568.NYPL Digital Library
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A colorfully-striped panther.Wikimedia Commons
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A few renderings of mermaid creatures. Some of these figures are quite different than the common mermaid depictions we are familiar with today, though the concept of a man-fish hybrid remains throughout.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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According to Extinct Monsters, 1896, these are pterodactyls or "Flying Dragons."Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Not all early animal depictions were fantastical. This illustration of an argonaut closely resembles the real-life animal's shape, though the description in the journal falsely claims that it sails on the surface of the sea by opening its webbed arms as shown.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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These "harpies" are actually Grecian mythical creatures.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Here is a depiction of the narwhal, which we know is an actual creature. But in this illustration based on early descriptions by 16th-century naturalist Conrad Gessner, the narwhal is depicted as a "one-horned monster with a sharp nose."Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A Triceratops, according to 1896's Extinct Animals.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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This depiction of a creature named by early naturalists as a "sea pig" was literally a pig with features resembling those of a sea animal. The sea pigs we know today are actually strange-looking sea cucumbers.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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An illustration of a sea serpent.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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The jaculus is a small mythical serpent or dragon which was commonly shown with wings and sometimes with front legs. Wikimedia Commons
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Whales were often depicted as giant monsters with sharp fangs and horns based on the stories of exhausted sailors.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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A strange fish species described by John Ashton based on earlier accounts from other naturalists. Although seemingly strange, the bottom creature has a slight resemblance to the modern sea butterfly.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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In Greek mythology, the minotaur was a monster with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull.Wikimedia Commons
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A dragon slithering itself around another pink elephant. Wikimedia Commons
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A drawing of a chimera, a fire-breathing hybrid creature from Greek mythology.Wikimedia Commons
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A crocotta from the Rochester Bestiary. These creatures were believed to be dog-wolves that originated in India or Ethiopia. Historians have drawn connections between them and real hyenas.Wikimedia Commons
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The kraken was among the most feared sea creatures of yore. These ship-wrecking beasts were likely exaggerations of the giant squid, which up until 150 years ago, wasn't really believed to exist.Wikimedia Commons
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The mythical monoceros featured here had one large horn and hoofed feet. The animal has some parallels to that of a common deer — minus the horn, of course.Wikimedia Commons
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In the Aberdeen Bestiary, a basilisk is described as a serpent king believed to be capable of killing a man with a single glance.Wikimedia Commons
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A satyr is a half-man and half-horse figure from Greek mythology. In Roman literature, these beasts were represented with goat-like features instead of horse-like ones.Wikimedia Commons
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A creature referred to as "Iona" in the Book of Kells, a 9th-century manuscript containing the four Gospels of the New Testament.Public Domain
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A winged serpent drawn by Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi who was best known for his 13-volume illustrated work on natural history.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Pictured is a manticore, a mythological beast believed to possess the head of a man and the body of a lion.Wikimedia Commons
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A dragon-like sea creature as depicted by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi. Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Another one of Ulisse Aldrovandi's illustrations.Biodiversity Heritage Library
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Natural historians from ancient Greece were convinced that unicorns were real and lived in India.Wikimedia Commons
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Many old maps depicted mythical sea creatures like this in part for entertainment and also for education.British Library/University of Chicago Press
44 Mythical Creatures That Early Zoologists Once Believed Were Real
Before there were more precise methods for cataloging and understanding the world, naturalists had no way of proving whether or not mythical creatures truly existed. Instead, they relied on their own observations and the accounts of others, like travelers, merchants, or explorers, who often exaggerated or misremembered their encounters.
As such, scientific journals from as late as the mid-19th century were often filled with drawings of mythical creatures that scientists thought could be real. These appeared beside misinterpretations of real-life animals as they were relayed to the illustrators from second-hand accounts.
Indeed, early naturalists wrote about wolves and panthers, but these appeared on the pages opposite otherworldly creatures like sea serpents and dragons, making for some fantastical textbooks.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library's Expansive Online Collection
Biodiversity Heritage LibraryA Cyclops that appears in John Ashton's 19th-century book, Curious Creatures in Zoology.
The rich biodiversity of our planet has long been documented by humankind, but it was only recently that centuries of natural studies were made free and easily accessible to the public through a single online portal called the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).
BHL is the world's largest open-access digital library for the historical documentation of life in our natural world.
Since its launch in 2006, BHL has served over 10 million people in over 240 countries around the world. With such a vast collection to display and maintain, the BHL is operated as a global consortium.
BHL is the product of an international collaboration between academics, experts, researchers, scientists, and the general public, and covers hundreds of thousands of volumes on natural history from the 15th to the 21st century. There are roughly more than 58 million pages featured on the site.
The database includes early depictions of flora and fauna as they were first recorded by European researchers. As this was pre-photography, these species were only able to be captured through intricate, hand-drawn illustrations.
Among the scientific texts available on BHL are such marvels as 1910's Cephalopod Atlas, which depicts the marine animals encountered by an 1898 German submarine expedition led by biologist Carl Chun aboard the SS Valdivia.
Chun's crew ventured 3,000 feet into the sea. It was a feat of its time that resulted in the discovery of a plethora of deep-sea wildlife. But before this expedition, it was widely believed that no life existed at all that deep in the ocean. Instead, researchers were left to their imaginations.
Historical Drawings Of Mythical Creatures And 'Real Monsters'
Wikimedia CommonsA depiction of a tiger from the Aberdeen Bestiary, a 12th-century text on animals.
Some of the animals cataloged in these early scientific manuscripts were actually just drawings of mythical creatures that scientists believed to be real.
This was the result of a combination of religious beliefs and the vast swathes of Earth that had yet to be explored. Additionally, some naturalists mistook the accounts of deformed animals or humans to create human-animal hybrids or demonic-looking creatures.
For example, the 16th-century surgeon Ambroise Par authored Des Monstres et Prodiges which depicted malformed humans and animal-human hybrids.
Then there is 1890's Curious Creatures in Zoology written by zoologist John Ashton. This is also a compilation of mythological creatures like mermaids, cyclopses, and hybrid half-human creatures alongside real ones. Much of this book can be accessed through the BHL and is featured among the drawings of mythical creatures above.
In some instances, animals we now view to be common knowledge such as tigers and hyenas were inaccurately drawn simply because they were difficult for witnesses to describe; antelopes were drawn like scaly dragons while elephants were drawn missing their voluminous ears.
Additionally, because of the limitations of travel, historians and scientists primarily relied on the accounts of explorers to catalog the world's beasts. Cartographers commonly drew ferocious sea monsters on their maps based on the anecdotes of exhausted sailors who claimed to have encountered them.
Biodiversity Heritage LibraryNaturalists commonly believed that all land creatures had oceanic counterparts, like the fish-pig hybrid seen here.
"To our eyes, almost all of the sea monsters on all of these maps seem quite whimsical, but in fact, a lot of them were taken from what the cartographers viewed as scientific, authoritative books," said author and historian Chet Van Duzer. "So most of the sea monsters reflect an effort on the part of the cartographer to be accurate in the depiction of what lived in the sea."
Maps and journals that depicted serpents and sea dragons were commonplace. Even whales, known as gentle giants with smooth features, were considered terrifying beasts with faces adorned with horns and fangs. Often, fear drove these illustrations until new observations helped naturalists to better understand these animals.
"Whales, the largest creatures in the ocean, are no longer monsters but rather natural marine storehouses of commodities to be harvested," Van Duzer explained. Once whales were discovered to have a capital purpose in human life — as a source of oil — attitudes about them changed around the 17th century.
And as the printing press advanced and sciences improved, these imaginative illustrations began to subside. And of course, with the advent of photography, naturalists became better able to relay their discoveries to the world.