Myths and legends are just as much a source of inspiration today as they were when first spoken in forums and round campfires thousands of years ago. The Basilisk and the Hydra may not inspire the same dread as they used to, but ancient gods and beasts are everywhere from the planets in the night sky to pretty much everything in Harry Potter! They’ve even inspired the names of the animals we share a planet with, and here’s a few examples.
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10 – Vampire Squid
Ask someone to list things associated with vampire lore and the word “squid” probably wouldn’t make the top ten. Yet here is an animal whose Latin name literally means “vampire squid from hell”. What foul features of this creature warrant the name? Does it suck the blood of fish? Does it swim away from garlic? Does it, um, sparkle in the right conditions?
Actually, it was the red eyes, dark body and cape-like webbing between the tentacles which prompted the naming, but there may be something to be said for the sparkling. The vampire squid has glowing false eyes on its body and bioluminescent arm-tips which flash and pulsate in the pitch dark . If it notices a predator approaching, the squid writhes its limbs around to completely disorient the offending creature before dashing off in a puff of “glowing spheres of blue bioluminescent light”.
9 – Basilisk Lizard
For some reason, this smallish unassuming South American reptile has been named after the mythological basilisk, a Serpent King with the ability to kill with a single glance. As if one grandiose name wasn’t enough, the basilisk is also known as the “Jesus Christ lizard” due to its amazing ability to travel over the surface of water. Rather than the graceful walk depicted in the Bible, the lizard must pedal its legs furiously to stay atop the water.
The design of the large hind feet and slapping motion they make as they hit the water creates air pockets which keep the surface tension of the water intact. If the basilisk loses its footing or slows down, it sinks into the water and must swim the rest of the way. Young basilisks have a much easier time keeping above water than larger adults who have to be much more precise in their movements to support their increased body weight.
8 – Salamander
The salamander has been greatly misunderstood throughout history. People were convinced it was a creature created by the fire from burning wood, when in fact the poor thing had probably just been hiding out in the damp logs! A salamander’s skin must be moist at all times so it can respire, and wet logs and leaves combined with its own mucus secretions make for a happy salamander.
The salamander as a beast of fire has since become a legend of its own from the works of C.S Lewis and Terry Pratchett to Digimon and Final Fantasy. However the most amazing property of salamanders seems to have been missed off completely – their power of regeneration. By giving up a leg or a tail, the amphibian can escape with its life, and the lost appendage will simply regrow.
7 – Goblin Shark
This is definitely a case of reality being more horrific than fiction. Goblins (and a Japanese variant, the tengu) are usually depicted as ugly creatures with big long noses… but the goblin shark turns this up to 11 with an underwater twist. The long snout is a sensor which detects the natural electric fields of its prey. It creeps in close, then uses detachable jaws that shoot out from the mouth area to scoop up and destroy unfortunate prey. Delightful.
The goblin shark is as primitive as it is repulsive, being termed a “living fossil” from how similar it is to its extinct ancestors. So whatever it’s been doing these last 125 million years, it’s obviously still working! Although it would make an awesome aquarium exhibit, they are rarely caught and none have survived longer than a week in captivity.
6 – Crested Argus
Argus Panoptes was giant from Greek mythology who had a hundred eyes all over his body. The goddess Hera tasked Argus with watching over a white cow which her wife Zeus had just turned one of his many lovers into in a failed attempt to hide her. Zeus sent Hermes to try and lull Argus to sleep, but his many eyes took turns sleeping and watching, so Hermes had to resort to more violent methods of dispatching the forsaken giant.
There are two bird species named after Argus, both large pheasant-like fowls. The crested argus is an impressive specimen boasting the longest and the broadest tail feathers of any bird on Earth. All of these black feathers are adorned with myriad small white spots which can be interpreted as hundreds of watching eyes like those seen on the legendary giant.
5 – Cyclops
It’s a bit strange that the name of the humanoid giant race Cyclopes actually only means “round eye” , given that the main distinguishing feature is that they have just one large eye, found in the centre of their foreheads. This monocular trait is shared in a group of freshwater animals which are also called Cyclops, or water-fleas. Real-life Cyclops may be considerably smaller than the original, maxing out at about half a centimetre, but they do share the single large eye.
Cyclops are normally harmless but they can be carriers of a horrible parasite which causes guinea worm disease. Drinking water containing infected Cyclops allow the worm to grow in your flesh until they exit through your skin at 1 metre (3 ft) long. The disease is currently only found in four African countries and there is hope that it will soon be the first parasitic disease to be eradicated from this world.
4 – Harpy Eagle
Harpy eagles are indisputably badass – using their large eyes, powerful wings and massive talons they find and snatch up sloths, opossums and monkeys from the forests of Central and South America for their food. The word harpy means “snatcher”, and this is important to their role in mythology.
Not completely dissimilar to Sirens, Harpies are woman-bird hybrids which aren’t exactly benevolent. The most well-known story of the Harpies is their involvement in the punishment of a king called Phineas who displeased the gods and was blinded. Every time he tried to eat, the harpies would snatch the food away. Perhaps the Greeks knew the seagull-induced woes of chip-eating beach tourists!
3 – Dwarf Siren
The dwarf siren’s name is something of a twofer in this list. A mythological dwarf siren would be a sight to behold – somehow combining the beautiful but deadly women/bird songstresses with fierce bearded miner-warriors! In reality, the dwarf siren looks more like a cross between an eel and a newt. They are long slender amphibians, related to salamanders but have completely lost their hind legs and instead get around using only their tail and their two tiny forelegs.
Like many salamanders, the dwarf siren never really grows up – a feature known as neoteny. Most amphibians undergo metamorphosis from water-based to land-based (think tadpole to frog), but dwarf sirens keep their external gills and generally stay underwater their whole life. That said, during a drought they have the ability to smother themselves in mucus and survive buried in mud for up to three months. All in all, not much like the tempting sirens of legend!
2 – Hydra
The mythical Lernaean Hydra was a huge revolting beast which Hercules was tasked with slaying as the second of his Twelve Labours. Hercules slew the beast despite its toxic breath and the ability to regrow two heads whenever one was sliced off, and the Lernaean Hydra was confined to myth forever.
Another form of hydra lives on in the form of tiny freshwater animals with tubes for bodies and about six slender tentacles, making them look something like little palm trees. These critters are predators and eat the Cyclops mentioned above. They have the ability to regenerate body parts like the original Hydra (although the concept of a “head” for these little animals is a bit vague) and in fact appear never to die of old age – known as biological immortality.
1 – Dragonfly
There are few myths which have captured people’s imagination as extensively as the dragon, and it is the namesake of many living species today. Dragonflies are particularly interesting because the differences in their portrayal between East and West reflect the dragons they are named after. Old Europeans were convinced of their ferocity as shown in their nicknames such as “devil’s darning needle” and “horse stinger”, mirroring the fearsome fire-breathing image of their dragons.
In contrast, those from Eastern cultures like Japan think of dragonflies as representing courage, power and harmony, like their peaceful dragons which are usually associated with water. In reality, dragonflies can take on either form, depending on who or what you are. They pose no threat to humans but are voracious hunters of other insects including mosquitoes, moths and bees.
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