Mythical Animals That Turned Out to Be Real

posted: 05/24/15

Cryptozoology is the study of creatures whose existence is rumored but unproven. Unfamiliar with the term? Well, you're likely familiar with many of its subjects, such as the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and El Chupacabra. (And the Yeti. Don't forget the Yeti.)

But with the advancement of science and technology, not all cryptids have remained in the realm of hearsay. Here are five animals that were initially considered suspect ... but were later proven to exist in real life.

So don't write off the Jersey Devil or Mothman just yet!

Komodo Dragon
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Didn't know this fella inspired King Kong, did you.
Kjersti/Fotolia

KOMODO DRAGON

It's hard to overlook an 8-foot-long, 100-pound reptile, right? Well, yes, actually, if you don't know where to look.

And so, rumors of an enormous prehistoric lizard roaming a remote Indonesian island were just that -- rumors -- until 1910. At that time, Lt. Steyn van Hensbroek, a Dutch colonial official, decided to check things out for himself. He put together an expedition and headed to Komodo Island, where he caught and killed a 6-foot specimen. Van Hensbroek then sent the proof -- er, dragon carcass -- back to the Zoological Museum and Botanical Garden at Bogor, Java, which dubbed the species Varanus komodensis.

But one man -- American explorer W. Douglas Burden -- was not satisfied. So in 1926 he went to his friends at the American Museum of Natural History and proposed an expedition to the remote, rocky, dangerous island to capture and bring back two large, live specimens to New York City ... alive.

Sound somewhat familiar?

After a lot of hit and miss, in the end the expedition was able to pile several dead and two live Komodo dragons onto their steamer and return to New York City, giving scientists plenty to study and visitors of the Bronx Zoo plenty to see. But the story doesn't end there, because upon his return, Burden relayed his fantastical adventure to Merian C. Cooper, a film producer. Substitute an ape for the dragon, and throw in a beautiful woman, and you have the classic 1933 film King Kong.

Platypus
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The platypus isn't the result of talented taxidermists after all.
iStockphoto

PLATYPUS

It's a duck! It's an otter! It's a beaver! It's ... a platypus!

Look at the platypus. Really LOOK at it. If you didn't know better, you might suspect it was the result of someone's Photoshop skills, no? Well, naturalists in the 18th century weren't so sure it was real either. In fact, while describing a platypus carcass for the journal Nature's Miscellany in 1799, esteemed English zoologist George Shaw conceded the creature may just be a hoax:

On a subject so extraordinary as the present, a degree of skepticism is not only pardonable, but laudable; and I ought perhaps to acknowledge that I almost doubt the testimony of my own eyes ...

While Shaw was pretty sure the carcass he'd received from Australia was real, his colleagues in the European scientific community were less so, believing it was the product of some talented Chinese taxidermists. It wasn't until years later that the platypus's existence was definitively confirmed and accepted.

Okapi
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If you just saw the okapi's hindquarters, wouldn't you be positive you were seeing a zebra?
iStockphoto

OKAPI

Another seeming product of Photoshop Wars is the okapi, which blends elements of the zebra, donkey, deer and antelope -- although genetically, it is most related to the giraffe. While you can find the okapi in many zoos today, they are rare in the wild, calling the Ituri Forest, a dense and remote rain forest in central Africa, home.

The indigenous peoples of central Africa were well aware, of course, of the okapi, although even then it was primarily through what the okapi left behind (droppings, hoof prints, etc.) rather than direct contact. But the quiet, solitary creatures easily evaded Europeans -- the be-all and end-all of early scientific classification -- who believed the okapi was just a myth, an "African unicorn."

The okapi retained legendary status until 1901, when zoologist and imperial administrator Sir Harry Johnston was able to obtain a okapi skeleton and skin and send it back to the British Museum for classification.

Classification as the new species Okapia johnstoni, of course.

Gorilla
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Admit it, you might have had doubts about the gorilla before the Internet (and zoos).
Marcelmooij | Dreamstime.com

GORILLA

Today it's hard to imagine a world in which people didn't believe gorillas existed. But it's not so hard to imagine your own skepticism if you were regaled with tales about giant, hairy, savage man-beasts with bad tempers living in the wilds of some far-away place. (And you didn't have access to the Internet to confirm or bust the story.)

Right?

And so it went for Westerners for a long, long time. Some attribute the first sighting of a gorilla by a non-native to Greek explorer Hanno in the 5th century B.C., although today scientists believe he was probably witnessing chimpanzees or baboons --- called "gorillae," as it happened, by his interpreters. Another explorer, Andrew Battel, told tales of human-like "monsters" visiting his camp's fire every morning after the humans had left for the day (although he pointed out that the apes didn't know enough to put MORE wood on the fire, tsk).

But gorillas themselves remained obscure and poorly understood until 1847, when physician and naturalist Thomas Savage obtained several gorilla bones, including skulls, in Liberia, and coauthored with Harvard anatomist Jeffries Wyman the first formal description of the newly discovered species Gorilla gorilla. And it wasn't until a decade after THAT that explorer Paul du Chaillu would see (and, unfortunately, hunt) live gorillas, sending back specimens to the societies funding his expeditions.

But even more unbelievably? The mountain gorilla subspecies Gorilla gorilla beringei remained a myth until 1902, when it was first identified by German captain Robert von Beringe!

Manatee
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Seamen may have needed better glasses.
DCL

MANATEE

It's well-known (we think!) that the mermaids of ancient mythology were likely inspired by sightings of manatees. Even Christopher Columbus was duped, writing in his logbook:

On the previous day [8 Jan 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.

Masculine traits? How about the fact that they look nothing like humans?

Or ... do they? Manatees are known to perform "tail stands" in shallow water, which would allow them to rise vertically out of the sea. And their jointed forelimbs allow the manatee to hold objects and bring food directly to their mouths as well as swim. It's entirely possible that from far, far, FAR away a manatee may look like a human treading water.

That's our story and we're sticking to it.

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