MISSOULA — While mermaids, griffins, and dragons are not real, the animals that inspired them very much are.
Whether it's diving into a nostalgic Disney classic like "The Little Mermaid" or the latest Barbie movie, mermaids have truly swum their way into modern pop culture.
Mermaids, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have existed in seafaring cultures for over 3,100 years. The first depiction was in 1,000 BC in Syria with the goddess Atargatis.
When sailors claimed to have spotted mermaids, these mysterious encounters -- if not mere fabrications -- often turned out to be encounters with creatures such as manatees, dugongs, or Steller's sea cows. Steller's sea cows met their demise by the 1760s due to overhunting.
Manatees are aquatic mammals that are part of a group called Sirenia. In this group, you'll also find dugongs. Dugongs and manatees share many similarities – they're alike in size, color, and shape.
Both of them sport flexible flippers as their forelimbs. To distinguish them, just check out their tails -- manatees have a broad, rounded tail, while dugongs have fluked tails, similar to a whale's tail.
Even Christopher Columbus chimed in, claiming to have spotted mermaids in 1493 near the Dominican Republic, but was unimpressed, saying, “They are not as beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man”
Mermaids aren’t the only mythical creatures that are inspired by real animals.
Dragons, those colossal creatures with enormous jaws, razor-sharp claws, and some pretty nifty mystical powers, have soared into legends around the world.
Sometimes, they're the fiery baddies, torching villages left and right. Other times, they're symbols of prosperity and good fortune, hanging out near water sources.
A big inspiration for this myth are dinosaur bones, and the inspiration doesn't stop there. Alligators, crocodiles, the frilled dragon, and even the mighty Komodo dragon have had a hand in shaping our image of dragons.
Having multiple animals inspire dragons actually makes sense because scholars say that belief in dragons likely evolved independently across countries.
Here is one more mythical creature to chew on — the Jackalope. Frequently dubbed the 'Frankenstein' rabbit. It’s the stuff of nightmares, sporting long horns sprouting from its tiny, furry head. And there may be more fact than fiction here.
As it turns out, rabbits can get infected by the Shope papillomavirus, which causes tumors to sprout on their heads and bodies. It's similar to the human papillomavirus (HPV), but with a twist. Instead of corrupting cells in humans to build cancerous tumors, these rabbits can end up with hard, keratinized horns.
Those horned, virus-affected rabbits are likely the culprits behind the jackalope legend. Taxidermists likely coined the term "jackalope" when they decided to graft pronghorn horns onto the heads of jackrabbits.
In the enchanting tapestry of myths and realities, our world is a realm where imagination and nature dance in captivating harmony.