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The Nepalese Unicorn
Nepal’s Chitwan National Park is a royal hunting ground turned wildlife sanctuary. In this pristine forest landscape, filmmakers go out in search of the almost mythical greater one-horned rhino. This semi-aquatic beast, also known as the ‘unicorn’ rhino, is one of the rarest rhino species in the world.
No word on whether they’ve ever tried luring it out with young maidens.
On the Trail of the Hercynian Unicorn
According to Julius Caesar, in the Hercynian Forest on the far side of the Rhine River,
There is an ox [or “quadruped”] of the shape of a stag, between whose ears a horn rises from the middle of the forehead, higher and straighter than those horns which are known to us. From the top of this, branches, like palms, stretch out a considerable distance. The shape of the female and of the male is the, same; the appearance and the size of the horns is the same.
Karl Shuker wonders if the creature described is a mutant deer. Beachcombing suggests it may have been a reindeer, perhaps either in profile or after one of its horns had fallen off. (They do that, you know.) Either way, the Hercynian unicorn is an intriguing ancient cryptid.
Michelle Enemark at Atlas Obscura has posted a great infographic on unicorns. It leaves out one of my favorite unicorn facts, however: a group of unicorns is called a “blessing.”
There used to be actual unicorns in the world, but scientists call them elasmotheres.
Five Prehistoric Beasts That Could Stand In for Mythical Monsters
Following up on this post about cryptids, here are some semi-random thoughts about how speculative paleontology could flesh out some of the creatures of myth and folklore. In particular, here are some possible connections that I kind of love.
Creodonts share a common ancestor with members of the order Carnivora. They bear a superficial similarity to large cats or enormous weasels, but are actually quite distinct. I’m thinking the claims about various large Appalachian predators known as the glawackus, the Ozark howler, and the Beast of Bladenboro might fit the bill as contemporary members of this extinct order of mammals. All three of these cryptids are described as being vaguely feline, but not quite. The glawackus, for example, is described as combining the most fearsome characteristics of a lion, a panther, and a bear. The Ozark howler is bear-sized, but seems mostly to resemble a shaggy feline creature. The Beast of Bladenboro seems to combine features of both cats and dogs.
All of this suggests some member of the order Creodonta. Perhaps they would be of the family Oxyaenidae, cat-like beasts that walked on flat feet like a bear. They had a short, broad skull, deep jaws, and teeth designed for crushing rather than shearing.
A further possible creodont is the water panther of Algonquian legend. This creature might be a member of genus Patriofelis, which was about the same size as a panther and thought to be a good swimmer but a poor runner.
2. Short-faced Bears
This Pleistocene predator, Arctodus simus, was possibly the largest carnivorous land mammal that ever lived in North America. These enormous predators might give us a template for the “man-eater,” “naked bear,” or “stiff-legged bear” of many Native American mythologies. This creature was apparently a gigantic, stiff-legged and hairless beast as big as an elephant.
Some even speculate that legends of the man-eater represent the dim memory of mammoths and mastodons that once roamed North America. But there are a number of arguments against this theory. First, the creature is described as being a gigantic bear—a creature that Native Americans would have known quite well. Second, as the name might suggest, the man-eater is a carnivore, while mammoths and mastodons were herbivores. Finally, man-eaters are never mentioned as having a trunk.
This one is actually fairly commonplace. Among those who believe creatures like the yeti or sasquatch are real, many assert that they are, in fact, gigantopithecines. Gigantopithecus blacki was the largest primate that ever lived, reaching almost ten feet in height if it stood upright. Paleontologists are actually fairly certain this enormous creature walked on all fours like a gorilla, but a minority view holds that they were bipedal.
Members of genus Gigantopithecus are pongines, meaning they are close relatives of the orangutan. Darren Naish follows this same reasoning in the Cryptozoologicon, explaining that the yeti or sasquatch is a bipedal pongine, “convergently similar to hominins in some ways but different with respect to the details of anatomy, gait and behaviour.” In most legends, sasquatch (by whatever name) are incapable of human speech and communicate, rather, by means of whistles, grunts, and gestures.
Depending on what you imagine as far as a sasquatch’s intelligence or behavior, one might also suggest it is more closely related to humans. Several Native American legends have a bigfoot-like creature that is described as an ogre, perhaps an over-large descendant of Paranthropus boisei or something similar. In some legends, sasquatch are able to mate with human women. This would not be genetically possible by either of these theories, however, barring some sort of magical intervention.
Members of the genus Elasmotherium are close relatives of the rhinoceros, as evidenced by the prominent horn of keratin protruding from their forehead. They are also fairly closely related to horses and tapirs as members of the order Perissodactyla. A conjectural “pygmy” elasmothere might be a Clydesdale-sized creature adapted for fast running on open grassland. With longer legs than rhinos, they would have a galloping, horse-like gait.
Of course, I am describing a unicorn—or at least something very similar to the unicorns first described by Ctesias and Pliny in ancient times. Such creatures would have hooved toes, four on their forelegs and three on their hindlegs, precisely as some medieval sources describe. Behaviorally, they might well be every bit as irascible as their rhinoceros cousins, also in keeping with the earliest strands of unicorn-lore.
5. Prehistoric Giraffids
Giraffids are a family of even-toed ungulates. Today they are represented solely by giraffes and okapis. In prehistoric times, however, they were much more diverse. I suspect one or another genus of prehistoric giraffids might make a fine template by which to understand the qilin or “Chinese unicorn“—which isn’t properly a unicorn at all as it is usually depicted with two horns. Perhaps something like Shansitherium fuguensis would fit the bill.
Giraffids are ruminants closely related to cattle and deer. Their horns, called ossicones, are covered in skin. Like the ossicones of giraffes, those of the qilin are reported to be blunt rather than sharp, which has been taken as an indication of the animal’s peaceful nature. A tesselated coat pattern like a giraffe’s might give the impression that the creature has scales on its back. Like the okapi (and unlike giraffes), the qilin is apparently a solidary creature.
In Asian art, qilin show great variety in physical appearance. All qilin have a deer-like body and cloven hooves. Japanese, Korean, and the earliest Chinese depictions agree that the qilin bears at least a superficial resemblance to a deer.
Cryptozoology + Paleontology = Awesomeness
Paleontologist Darren Naish and artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen have collaborated to explore cryptids from around the world and speculate about how these monsters might actually fit into our world from an ecological and biological point of view. Their work is titled Cryptozoologicon: The Biology, Evolution, and Mythology of Hidden Animals (Irregular Books, 2013). Based on Annalee Newitz’s review at i09, it looks really interesting. Newitz writes,
What’s so fascinating about this book, written by paleontologist Darren Naish, and artists John Conway and C.M. Kosemen, is that it respects both the legends behind these monsters and the science that debunks them. It’s a complicated merger between speculative fiction and scientific analysis, which the group also showcased in their previous collaboration, All Yesterdays.In that book, the group explored new directions in how to depict ancient animals, with often mind-blowing results. WithCryptozoologicon, they are trying something more speculative still. They’ve put together an extensive collection of cryptids from around the world, drawn them in gorgeous panels, and provided both a scientific debunkery as well as an enthusiastic, fictional endorsement of the creature’s existence.
Each entry contains three sections: (1) the accounts of the creature that others have given, (2) an evaluation of those accounts, and (3) a speculative description of what that creature might be, if in fact it existed (and apparently their assessments of this range from “no way” to “well, maybe”).
For example, the writers come to the following creative explanation for the notorious chupacabra:
Clearly, the Chupacabra is a semi-bipedal, nocturnal, predatory marsupial, the likes of which is unknown to science. Equipped with a long, robust tail, forelimbs proportioned something like those of a primate, and an ability to leap and climb, this sharp-toothed predator (which we name Deinoroo caprophagus) is convergently similar to the Australasian macropods in some respects but is actually a very large opossum. Indeed, the formidable dentition, strong jaws and enlarged upper canines of opossums required little evolutionary modification to produce a large-bodied predator.
This whole project sound a lot like what I have attempted to do with the various eldritch races in Into the Wonder as well as my (as yet unpublished) musings about how Jersey devils, Ozark howlers, unicorns, and other creatures of myth might work from an evolutionary/paleontological perspective.