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Science World: Mythical Creatures Revealed

Discover the science behind some legendary creatures

By Jeanna Bryner | May 8, 2006

From fire-breathing dragons to magical unicorns, mythical creatures have taken center stage in many of Hollywood's biggest hits. In these fantasy worlds, the creatures may be a force to be reckoned with, or a powerful ally.

In the 2006 movie Eragon, a dragon named Saphira teams up with Eragon, an orphaned teenage boy. Together, the duo battles the dark forces that are taking over their kingdom. Eragon comes to rely on the magical powers of Saphira, who is the last of the dragon species.

Stories like this one aren't found just on movie screens or in the pages of your favorite books. For centuries, tales about mythical creatures have been imagined by people all around the world.

To get the scoop on what may have sparked belief in these imaginary animals, Science World spoke to Laurel Kendall. Kendall is an anthropologist who studies cultures. She is co-curator of the exhibit Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns, and Mermaids at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Read on to see what Kendall and her colleagues think may have inspired the myths of these magical-creatures-turned-movie-stars.

Creature: Dragon

ANCIENT LEGEND: More than a thousand years ago in Europe, people believed that giant fire-breathing dragons guarded hidden stashes of gold. "If some of that gold was stolen, the dragon would awaken and unleash fiery destruction on humans," says Kendall.

SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION: People have long imagined dragons as being enormous, scaly beasts with huge teeth and claws. People believed so strongly in these lizardlike creatures that biologists in Europe once wrote accounts of the behavior and habitat of dragons in much the same way as they described that of lizards and snakes.

What may have advanced the legend of dragons? The imagined creatures look like close relatives of big animals like the Tyrannosaurus rex. Dinosaurs died out long before people were alive, but the discovery of dinosaur fossils, the mineralized remains or impressions of an organism, may have supported the ancient belief. When people dug up these fossils, they may have mistaken them for dragon remains.

Creature: Mermaid

ANCIENT LEGEND: European sailors have long told tales of fabled marine creatures with the head and upper body of a woman and the tail of a fish. "One story is that if you spot a mermaid, you'll have a shipwreck," says Kendall.

SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION: Relatives of manatees, called dugongs, that live in some of the world's oceans may have supported the belief in mermaids. Dugongs are marine mammals, or warm-blooded animals that can produce milk. Like all mammals, dugongs breathe air to survive. These creatures have paddlelike flippers and tails that allow them to gracefully move through the water. They stick to shallow waters where they feed on sea grasses. Sailors may have caught a glimpse of dugongs when the animals surfaced to breathe. The sailors may have thought the dugong's head and dolphin-like tail were the body of a mermaid.

Creature: Unicorn

ANCIENT LEGEND: Myths about a magical horse with one horn are sprinkled throughout history. In many regions of the world, including Europe and East Asia, people believed that the horns of unicorns had magical powers, says Kendall. It was thought that the horn could cure illnesses and prevent aging. In the 16th century, people also believed that the horn could be used to detect if an enemy had poisoned one's food.

SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION: Scientists don't know the origin of the myth of the unicorn. But tusks of a marine animal, called the narwhal, may have advanced the legends. Narwhals are Arctic whales that live in the icy channels of northern Canada and northwestern Greenland. Male narwhals grow a long, spiraled tooth that juts from its upper jaw. This tusk can grow up to 2.7 meters (9 feet) in length-more than half the length of its body. Centuries ago, sailors often encountered these animals and brought their pearly white tusks to markets in Europe. Buyers purchased the tusks at high prices, with the belief that they were the horns of once-living unicorns.

Creatures: Hippogriff and Griffin

ANCIENT LEGEND: In Asia, ancient travelers told myths of giant birds having the body of a horse or a lion. They called these animals hippogriffs and griffins, respectively. The travelers spoke of giant griffins that guarded fabulous sources of gold, says Kendall.

SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION: Some scientists think the legend of griffins may have been inspired by fossil discoveries in Mongolia. About 80 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, a plant-eating dinosaur called Protoceratops (pro-toe-SAIR-uh-tops) lumbered across parts of Asia. Weighing in at 180 kilograms (400 pounds), the four-legged dinosaur had an enormous head and a parrot-like beak. When people dug up fossils of this creature, they may have mistaken it for a monstrous animal that was half bird.

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