12 Animals That May Have Inspired Mythical Creatures

Fact can be as bizarre as fiction.

a pink flamingo standing with its neck curled up

Igor Rybaltchenko / Getty Images

There is no shortage of stories of mythical creatures throughout history. While many have been debunked, those legends had to start somewhere. In some cases, real-life animals may have inspired the myths we know today. In others, impressive similarities may have caused some to confuse the real-life animal with an already-existing mythological creature.

Either way, there's no denying that there is a connection between real-life creatures and those of legend. This list contains some of the animals that make up those links.

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profile of brown okapi with striped legs bending down for a drink

Musat / Getty Images

One animal that may have inspired mythology is the okapi. These deer-like mammals live in the rainforests of Africa and appear to be a combination of a giraffe, zebra, and antelope. When seen from a distance, they are easily confused with horses (because of the general body structure) and zebras (because of the striped legs).

Most importantly, male okapis have a pair of horns placed side by side on their heads. When viewed from the side, the horns can appear as one, making the okapi look like a unicorn. This feature has even earned them the nickname, "the African unicorn."

We don't know for sure that the idea of a unicorn was born from the okapi — narwhal tusks, for instance, are commonly cited as inspiration for the creature. However, there's no denying that the combination of a single horn and a horse-like body harkens to the African okapi.

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outdoor sculpture of two gigantopithecus that look like bigfoot

Frank Vincentz / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Everything we know about gigantopithecus comes from fossils, including enormous teeth and jaw bones. It was the largest ape to ever live—researchers estimate it was 10 feet tall and 1,200 pounds—and it roamed the forests of Asia as recently as 300,000 years ago. Gorillas, by comparison, can weigh 400 pounds. Closely related to the orangutan, some anthropologists believe that gigantopithecus was bipedal (walked on two feet).

When all of these features come together, they create an image of Bigfoot, the Yeti, or any of the other massive ape-like creatures that are popular in folklore. Some Bigfoot hunters believe that the creature they search for is a gigantopithecus that managed to survive. However, the species most likely went extinct after it was unable to adapt its diet to a changing climate hundreds of thousands of years ago.

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Giant Oarfish

blue illustration of sea serpent giant oarfish swimming underwater

dottedhippo / Getty Images

Also known as the king of herrings or ribbonfish, the giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne) is the world's largest bony fish. Growing up to 36 feet long, this fish spends its time gracefully slithering through the ocean's deepest depths between 656 and 3,280 feet. It is rarely seen on the surface.

The combination of its elusiveness and impressive size makes it clear to see why the giant oarfish may well be the source for the sea serpents popular in oceanic mythology. Encounters with humans are extremely rare, and it wasn't until 2001 that the U.S. Navy managed to capture a live oarfish on film.

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chubby gray manatee touches body while swimming underwater

33karen33 / Getty Images 

While sailing near Haiti, Christopher Columbus believed he saw mermaids. He even got close enough to render himself unimpressed, stating that in person, they were “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” In actuality, Columbus was looking at manatees (Trichechus).

He's not the only traveler to make the mistake, however; "mermaid" sightings by sailors throughout history were likely to have also been this marine mammal or, possibly, a similar-looking sea cow called a dugong.

With mermaids so steeped in popular lore, dating back to the ancient Babylonians with their half-fish, half-human god called Oannes, not to mention the ancient Greeks with their sirens luring sailors to their deaths and Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" tale, it's not surprising that people were quick to spot "mermaids" when exploring new locales.

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large fossil of T rex dinosaur

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The theropods were a group of dinosaurs characterized by their hollow bones and three-toed limbs. The most notable member of the theropod group is the fierce Tyrannosaurus rex.

Some experts believe that the massive remains of theropods found by fossil hunters may have given rise to belief in dragons. The logic is that many ancient cultures attempted to account for fossils of creatures they had never seen themselves by turning to mythology. Perhaps this is why a number of theropods, such as the Balaur bondoc and Smok, are named after dragons in some way.

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Giant Squid

black and white illustration two men and beached giant squid

ilbusca / Getty Images

Especially popular in pirate stories is the Scandinavian myth of the Kraken, a giant sea monster that resembles a mammoth cephalopod. The Kraken was imagined to be huge, presenting as a small island that sailors would mistake for land, only to get sucked down beneath the waves.

This fantastical creature is likely derived from sightings of giant squids (Architeuthis), which can grow to up to 43 feet long and whose tentacles are equipped with hundreds of sharp-toothed suckers. Since these beasts prefer to dwell in deep ocean waters, sightings of giant squids are highly rare but possible, making them perfect inspiration for a mythical monster.

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profile skull of protoceratops with parrot-like nose and mouth

Kabacchi / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The protoceratops was a sheep-sized dinosaur that roamed the land in what is now Mongolia. The four-legged creature had an enormous head and a parrot-like beak. Because of this, early fossil hunters likely mistook its remains for those of a griffin (or gryphon)—a mythical beast said to have the head of an eagle and the body of a lion, portrayed as winged or wingless.

Even today, protoceratops fossils can be found all over the Gobi desert. Given the skeletal form of the animal's fossils, it's still easy to see how it could have been confused with the mythical griffin.

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bright pink flamingo with head twisted back onto body

Diana Robinson Photography / Getty Images

Everyone knows that flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) have a striking hue. Because of their vibrant pink and red plumage, many believe the birds could have given rise to the legend of the phoenix. A sacred firebird that regenerates from ashes instead of dying, the mythical phoenix was first identified by ancient Egyptians as a heron-like bird, and was notable for its crimson feathers.

Large flamingoes did live along the Nile River, and some historians have suggested that the heat rising from the shoreline in the places where these birds lay their eggs made them look like flames.

Fittingly, the word "flamingo" comes from the Latin word flamma, which, in reference to the bird's brightly colored feathers, means "fire."

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Dwarf Elephant

skeleton profile of dwarf elephant with long tusks

Ninjatacoshell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Not to be confused with the modern-day pygmy elephant, the dwarf elephant roamed the Mediterranean islands throughout the Ice Age until about 10,000 years ago. Its existence is an example of insular dwarfism, an evolutionary process in which large animals breed smaller to adapt to a smaller environment. The dwarf elephant was about the size of a Shetland pony, and its size reduction is "comparable to if humans were to shrink down to the size of a rhesus monkey."

When looking at the whole skeleton of the dwarf elephant, it's not clear how this animal could inspire stories of a Cyclops. However, the skull tells another tale. The central nasal cavity for the dwarf elephants' trunks could have been interpreted as an eye socket, inspiring myths of a one-eyed creature.

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illustration of giant wombats standing in jungle clearing

Arthur Dorety / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

The diprotodon, also known as the giant wombat, was the largest marsupial that's ever lived. The enormous creature measured up to 12.5 feet long and 5.5 feet high and weighed in at over 6,000 pounds. It went extinct as recently as 25,000 years ago, which means that it would have been around by the time humans migrated to their native Australia.

Some experts suggest that the diprotodon is the origin of the mythical monster known to Australian Aboriginals as the bunyip. Both creatures share some key behaviors, such as lurking in swamps and billabongs (an isolated pond left behind when a river changes course), though the diprotodon was not known to prey on women and children the way the bunyip does.

Even now, the diprotodon lives on in the rich cultural memory of Aboriginal lore; some tribes identify diprotodon fossils as "bunyip bones."

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pastel illustration of plesiosaurus underwater, long neck and biting fish

Dmitry Bogdanov / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

One of the most famous mythical beings in history is the Loch Ness Monster—a large marine creature with a long neck that protrudes from the water. This monster has a long history in Scottish folklore, but it may have started with the plesiosaurus, a reptile with a similar physical description that lived during the Jurassic period.

Plesiosaurs measured about 15 feet long, with broad, flat bodies and short tails. It flapped its fins to swim, much as a sea lion does today. It likely hunted by swaying its head from side to side as it passed through schools of fish.

Some believe that the Loch Ness Monster is in fact a living plesiosaurus and continue to claim sightings. However, most experts believe that the beast went extinct along with most dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The legend of Nessie is part of what's been left behind.

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bust of hobbit with dark skin, flat nose, large eyes

Karen Neoh / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

"Hobbit" is the nickname given to Homo floresiensis, a species of extinct human found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. Standing at about 3 feet, 6 inches tall, their taxonomy is a subject of fierce debate because of the way different features match up with various species of both archaic humans and apes. Many experts believe that hobbits represent a new branch on the human evolutionary tree.

Hobbits are a likely source of the local legend of the Ebu Gogo, human- and monkey-like creatures said to have been short, hairy, language-poor, and cave-dwelling. The connection is most likely due to the short stature of hobbits. Hobbits were also made famous by J.R.R. Tolkien's literary series, "The Lord of the Rings."

View Article Sources
  1. Fairclough, Caty. "From Mermaids to Manatees: the Myth and the Reality." Smithsonian, Ocean.

  2. Gamillo, Elizabeth. "Ancient Elephants the Size of Shetland Ponies Once Roamed Sicily." Smithsonian Magazine.

  3. "Plesiosaur." Britannica.