Mythical Land Creatures

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Unicorn model: Unicorn model, 10 feet long from tail to tip of horn
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Creatures of the Earth

We share the land with countless living animals. Some are familiar; others seem quite bizarre. Creatures from the lands of myth can be both recognizable and strange. Sometimes they appear to have body parts from ordinary animals combined in very unusual ways. Other times they look just like familiar animals--but have extraordinary and magical powers.

Fun Facts: Land Creatures

  • The remains of Protoceratops dinosaurs, which lived from 145.5 to 65.5 million years ago, may have influenced descriptions of griffins. Both Protoceratops and griffins have birdlike beaks, but bodies with four legs--an unusual combination. And Protoceratops fossils have very long shoulder-blades, a feature that may explain why griffins are said to have wings.
  • Ancient Greeks found enormous bones they thought to have belonged to flesh-and-blood giants who lived and died. Even today large and surprisingly humanlike bones can be found in Greece; modern scientists understand them to be remains of mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses that once lived in the region.
  • The tales of the European one-horned magical unicorn were first told over 2,000 years ago by Greek travelers. In the Middle Ages, Danish sailors brought narwhal tusks--long, white, and spiraled--to Europe, where buyers considered them to be valuable, magical remains of the elusive unicorns, thought to be able to cure a range of illnesses, from epilepsy to the plague. The Asian unicorn, first mentioned in written stories around 2700 B.C.E., differs in appearance by a scaly coat, one or multiple flesh-covered horns, and a wolflike head.
  • In Japan, the unicorn is called the kirin and is the symbol and name of a popular beer. The word kirin has also come to mean "giraffe" in modern Japanese, perhaps owing to an earlier confusion: In 1414, Cheng Ho, the returning leader of an expedition to Africa, presented to the Chinese emperor a live "unicorn" that was, in fact, a giraffe.
  • Enormous apes are more than a myth; the Gigantopithecus blacki, now extinct, is a very distant relative of humans that lived in Southeast Asia for almost a million years, until perhaps as recently as 300,000 years ago.