August 24, 2012

You Can't Make This Stuff Up

        Mythical creatures through the ages have been endowed with all sorts of magical abilities that mark them out as creatures of fantasy, impossible in the real world.  And yet, when you look at these abilities, it turns out that they aren't nearly as impossible as you might imagine.  The natural world also endows its creatures with plenty of fantastical abilities.  Check out the real-world counterparts of some of the most popular fantasy animal traits.

        Flight - A good way to make a fantasy creature is to add wings to some non-flying beast.  A giant lizard with wings makes a dragon, a horse with wings makes Pegasus, and so on.  But of course there are plenty of flying creatures in real life, including birds, mammals, insects, and even fish, so the natural world is quite capable of developing flying critters.  The biggest flying creature ever is thought to have been a pterosaur with a 36 foot wingspan weighing up to 550 pounds, which would not disgrace a dragon.

        Breathing fire - No, no non-magical animals breathe fire, but there are some pretty amazing abilities out there that come close.  There are electric eels and other animals that can produce electric shocks.  There are fireflies and other animals that can produce light.  There are bombardier beetles that can shoot heat in the form of a boiling liquid.  Any one of these abilities would seem mythical if we weren't already familiar with it.

        Hoarding treasure - From dragons to leprechauns, many mythical creatures seem to collect gold that they don't necessarily have any use for.  This seems like the sort of thing that would have no place in the natural world, existing in stories merely to give adventurers something to search for…  but in fact there are a number of real animals that exhibit such behavior.  Crows, pack rats, ferrets, and bower birds are among those creatures that will collect and hoard shiny or colorful objects.

        Giantism - Some mythical monsters are just normal things at giant size - giant humans, giant rats, giant spiders, giant snakes…  Perhaps such giants are only in our imaginations now, but don't think that real life couldn't produce them.  It has - millions of years ago.  About 2 to 4 million years ago there was a rodent (Josephoartigasia monesi) that weighed around 2,200 pounds.  About 60 million years ago there was a snake (Titanoboa cerrejonensis) around 40 to 50 feet long.  Not to mention your basic tyranosaurs and sauropods.  There's nothing mythical about these monsters!

        Pygmyism - Some mythical creatures are magical by virtue of their tininess.  While tiny flying humanoids may not really exist, however, there are some real creatures so small it's hard to believe no magic is involved.  The bee hummingbird can weigh less than 0.06 ounces.  (Plus, it's got the fairy wings and beautiful colors going.)  The smallest known vertebrate is a frog (Paedophryne amauensis) only 0.30 inches in length.  To add to its magic, it has no tadpole stage but is born as an even tinier miniature adult, and it's capable of jumping thirty times its body length.

        Regeneration - The Lernaean hydra was famous for growing new heads whenever one was cut off.  Pretty magical!  But of course many lizards can grown a new tail, and salamanders and newts are able to regenerate not only tails but limbs, jaws, eyes, and assorted internal organs.  True, it's not going to happen instantaneously during a battle, but it's still pretty magical.

        Shape-shifting - Perhaps it's true that there are no creatures with the magical ability to mimic any appearance, human or animal.  But there are some pretty amazing shape-shiftings that occur in nature.  First and foremost, consider your butterflies and frogs.  They may go through the shape change only once in their life, but what an extraordinary change it is.  If you didn't know, would you ever guess that a caterpillar and a butterfly were the same animal?  But consider also the octopus and squid family, members of which can shape-shift in a truly astonishing manner.  Unencumbered by a skeleton, they can squish themselves into all sorts of shapes.  They can also change the
texture of their skin from smooth to covered in wiggly bumps.  And add to the changes in shape and texture the ability to change color to mimic the surrounding terrain, or to create psychedelic waves of rippling moving colors, and you have something that can only be called a shape-shifter.  Octopuses can look like anything from a sandy seafloor to a branch of coral, from a forest of waving seaweed to a fierce-eyed monster.  Magic!

        Granting wishes - Okay, as far as I know, there are no real-life animals who can grant wishes… unless your wish happens to be for something fluffy to curl up next to you and purr.

[Pictures: Watchful Dragon, rubber block print by AEGN, 2008;
Hummingbird Nest, rubber block print by AEGN, 2012;
Octopus, wood block print by AEGN, 1998.]

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