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Animythology: Fossils

A 19th-century illustration of a Megalosaurus skull
Illustration provided by the Biodiversity Heritage Library

It’s common to see animals in movies and books act a certain way. There are the wise old owls, such as Owl from Winnie the Pooh, and the friendly heroic dogs, such as Lassie. But have you ever wondered why we give these traits to certain animals? “Animythology” hopes to compare the mythology of animals to their actual behavior to uncover any explanation. Today we will be focusing on fossils, our stone window into the past!

Fossils are defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as the preserved remnant or impression of something in the Earth’s crust. Anything can become a fossil, from a relatively mundane plant to an incredible dinosaur. In 1676, a fossilized femur was located in a limestone quarry in Oxfordshire, England. Its finder, chemistry professor Robert Plot, claimed it came from an ancient race of giants. Then, in 1824, geology professor William Buckland compared the femur to other bones discovered in the quarry and concluded that they had in fact come from what he believed to be an extinct carnivorous lizard. This was Megalosaurus — the first “discovered” dinosaur.

Though dinosaurs are relatively recent discoveries, their fossils have impacted numerous cultures throughout the centuries, even inspiring some of mythology’s most prominent figures.

The Griffin

Thought to have had the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, the griffin was a majestic creature. Though there is not a singular myth about griffins, they were common historical symbols that represented strength and protection. In medieval Europe, griffins were commonly depicted on shields in the hopes of protecting the knights who held them. Griffins were also associated with gold and were thought to protect hidden troves of it. As such, statues and images of griffins were placed in the tombs of pharaohs to protect their treasure.

Though there are no known fossils that exactly resemble a griffin, there are many that possess similar features. In the Gobi Desert there are not only huge deposits of gold but also Protoceratops fossils. Protoceratops were large herbivorous dinosaurs with a distinctive crest and large beak. Though they resemble their descendants, the Triceratops, Protoceratops do not possess distinctive horns. Merchants would travel through the Gobi Desert while on the Silk Road and see these skeletons seemingly protecting the gold. As they traveled, they would bring the skulls with them, spreading the myth of a large creature with the body of a lion and beak of an eagle across the continent.

The Cyclops

The Cyclops was a giant in Greek mythology that possessed a single, centralized eye and incredible strength. Cyclopes were creatures that were simultaneously feared and respected in ancient Greek culture. One myth spoke of the Cyclops brothers Arges, Brontes, and Steropes. Translated, their names mean Bright, Thunderer, and Lightener respectively, and they were said to be craftsmen of such skill that they forged the divine lightening of Zeus, the God of Thunder. Yet there also exists the legend of Polyphemus, a savage Cyclops who lived on the island of Crete and would devour trespassers on his land. In Homer’s The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is sealed with Polyphemus inside his cave with no method of escape. Using his wits, Odysseus presents himself as a traveler called “Nobody” and convinces Polyphemus to drink with him before devouring him. Polyphemus agrees and soon drinks himself into a deep sleep. Odysseus takes a hot stick and jams it into the Cyclops’s eye, blinding him. Polyphemus then opens his lair and vows to destroy Nobody, distracting the other Cyclopes and allowing Odysseus to escape unharmed.

Discovered on the island of Crete in the early 2000s was the fossil of a Dinotherium Giganteum. Dinotherium were ancient pachyderms, resembling modern African elephants but possessing shorter, backward-pointing tusks and more importantly a thick, yet short, trunk. This trunk creates a massive nasal cavity in the skull of a Dinotherium, which from the front resembles a massive eye socket. It is likely that these skulls perpetuated the image of a savage, one-eyed giant in the imagination of the ancient Greeks.

The Unicorn

A majestic pure white stallion, the unicorn was a creature of immense magical power, said to purify even the most toxic poison with its horn. In addition possessing magical properties, it was said to be so ferocious that only the pure of heart could have any hope to tame it. Pliny the Elder, a first century Roman author, described the unicorn as “the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.” Unicorn horns were a precious commodity, with Pope Clement VII being given one as a gift. We now know that these were not in fact unicorn horns but rather tusks from narwhals. Though narwhals may have perpetuated the myth of the unicorn they are most likely not the original inspiration.

The original inspiration probably originated with Elasmotherium, an extinct Eurasian rhinoceros. Elasmotherium was a wooly quadruped that did posses a three foot long black horn in the middle of its forehead. Elasmotherium also went extinct less than 30,000 years ago, meaning it would have been encountered by early humans. These descriptions of powerful horned beasts were passed down through the ages, while their remaining bones created the idea that it was a beautiful horse rather than a shaggy rhinoceros. The connection between rhinoceroses and unicorns even continued past the Middle Ages, with Marco Polo encountering them in his travels through Sumatra. Marco Polo was not impressed by them, describing them as “a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin.”

Today

Fossils are as relevant to today’s culture as they were in the past, with dinosaurs’ fearsome appearance and strength making them popular subjects in media; perhaps most famously the T-Rex from the Jurassic Park series. Fossils themselves are viewed more critically, with scientists constantly reevaluating preconceptions on how we believe they behaved and making new discoveries. The most recent discovery concerns the Spinosaurus, a carnivorous dinosaur that possessed a distinctive sail on its back and towered even over the T-Rex. Though it was originally assumed to have been a land-dwelling dinosaur, the discovery of a nearly complete tail fossil revealed that the Spinosaurus was an aquatic dinosaur that hunted in riverbeds like a crocodile.

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