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SuperScience: Mythical Creatures Revealed

Discover the science behind the legends of some magical creatures

By Jeanna Bryner | May 2006

From fire-breathing dragons to pearly white unicorns, mythical creatures have starred in many of Hollywood's biggest hits. In these fantasy worlds, the creatures may be a terrible enemy, or a powerful ally.

In the 2006 movie Eragon, a magical dragon named Saphira teams up with Eragon, an orphaned teen boy. Together, the duo battles the dark forces that are taking over their kingdom.

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 and their magical powers have been part of cultures all around the world.

To get the scoop on what may have inspired people to believe in these legends, SuperScience spoke to Laurel Kendall. She is an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Kendall is helping to create the museum's latest exhibition, Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns, and Mermaids.

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

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 huge lizardlike beasts. Many people believed in these creatures. Biologists even wrote descriptions of dragons in the same way that they described animals like snakes.

What led to such a strong belief in dragons? The imagined creatures look like close relatives of dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex. Dinosaurs died out long before people were alive to see them. But fossils may have supported dragon legends. When people dug up the fossils of big animals, they may have mistaken them for dragon remains.

Unicorn

Ancient Legend: Myths about a magical horse with one horn have been told throughout history. "In many regions of the world, including Europe and Asia, people believed that the horns of unicorns had magical powers," says Kendall. It was even thought that the horns could cure illnesses and be used to detect poison.

Scientific Explanation: Scientists don't know how the legend of the unicorn began. But tusks of an unusual marine animal, called the narwhal, might have advanced the belief in the unicorn. Narwhals live in the icy ocean waters around northern Canada and Greenland. Male narwhals grow a spiraled tooth that juts outward from the upper jaw. This tusk can grow to be 2.7 meters (9 feet) long. That's more than half the length of the whale's entire body. Centuries ago, sailors came across narwhals and brought their tusks to markets in Europe. People bought the tusks at high prices, with the belief that they were the horns of unicorns.

Mermaid

Ancient Legend: Sailors from Europe have long told tales of mermaids. These fabled creatures have 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: Dugongs (DOO-gongs) living in many of the world's oceans may have supported the belief in mermaids. Dugongs are marine mammals. So, like all mammals, dugongs breathe air to survive. They swim in areas close to shore and have paddlelike flippers and tails that allow them to move gracefully through the water. Sailors may have caught a glimpse of dugongs when the animals came to the surface to breathe. The sailors may have mistaken the dugong's head and fishlike tail for the body of a mermaid.

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