6 creatures from fairy tales that actually roamed the Earth.
So it turns out unicorns might be real.
Yeah. Researchers in Kazakhstan were working on a fossil site when they found the remains of a giant, ancient rhinoceros-like animal known as Elasmotherium sibiricum.
When they measured how old the bones were, they found something really cool: The bones were only around 26,000 years old!
Scientists typically thought all these creatures died out more like 350,000 years ago, so this has some cool scientific implications for the species. It helps us understand why this small population of animals survived, when their cousins died off, and what the environment was like in the past.
But this also has an interesting implication for fairy tales too.
If these creatures are only 26,000 years old, they probably lived around the same time as early humans. So unicorn stories may not be purely-fantastical myths, but instead an ancient memory of finding an E. sibiricum, passed down through the ages.
Yes. Unicorns could be real.
In honor of these maybe-not-so-mythical beasts, here are six real-life creatures that might have inspired our other favorite monsters and fairy tales. These are just a handful of theories, of course, and many other explanations are possible, but if these are true, they say something really cool.
1. To inaugurate our list, this is the real unicorn in all it's ... uh ... glory?
I guess they might have been a bit ... less majestic than the ones in "The Last Unicorn." In fact, E. sibiricum would have been huge — nearly the size of a mammoth — covered in fur and built like a tank with a 24/7 gym membership. That'd definitely give any bad guy some serious pause before trying to capture one!
2. Next up, Herodotus' giant crazy ants.
Herodotus was a Greek writer known for writing down just about anything he overheard, a habit that earned him the title "The Father of History." But some of the things he wrote down were kind of weird.
Like his stories that India was full of giant, furry, man-eating ants. The ants' burrows were also apparently covered in gold, which the locals would try to scoop up before the giant, aggressive ants would chase them away.
But it turns out that Herodotus might not have been off his rocker, just the victim of a really bad game of telephone. Because it turns out that high on the Deosai Plateau in northern Pakistan, there are big, furry creatures that sometimes bring gold dust up out of the Earth.
Only they're probably not ants. They're marmots.
Herodotus didn't travel himself; he just wrote down the stories other people told him. So it's possible that by the time the story got from Pakistan to Greece, someone mistranslated it (and added the man-eating part because, let's face it, it's not a good story until someone gets eaten).
3. Also, a real-life "little mermaid" would make for a very different movie...
Some people think that the common depiction of mermaids as half-human, half-fish creatures may have come from early sightings of manatees. In fact, even Columbus' crew probably saw them, although, they noted, "...they are not so beautiful as they are said to be." Ha!
We still honor this connection today. The latin name for the manatee order, sirenia, comes from the myth of the sirens, who often look like mermaids.
4. Westeros isn't the only place that's full of dragons.
No story of a knight in shining armor would be complete without that knight slaying a giant fire-breathing dragon to rescue a town or damsel from peril.
But what if they were actually only a few inches long and didn’t breath fire, but just hung out in super misty places? Head on over to Postojna Cave in Slovenia right now, and you might just catch a glimpse of baby dragons hatching — or at least, a creature that may have inspired the dragon.
Olms are blind salamanders that live in caves, grow up to 16 inches long, and sport a neck frill that looks similar to what you might expect a dragon to have. The story goes that during heavy storms, they might have gotten washed out of their caves and into streams, where people found them — and being a weird, long snake-thing, they must have obviously been baby dragons, right?
What's more, try to find their lair and you'd end up outside a big cave filled with mist, which could’ve been mistaken for smoke in yesteryear. And where there's smoke, there's fire!
5. Imagine catching a kraken on your next fishing trip.
Many sailors dreaded coming across the kraken during their travels. The massive tentacled monster was said to have eaten whales, destroyed ships, and dragged sailors down to the watery depths, never to be seen again.
But it seems reports of the kraken might have just been about the giant squid, a creature capable of growing to lengths of … well, no one is really sure. Some estimates put them at 18 meters long — nearly 60 feet —but many believe that to be too far.
Ask any sailor who’s come across the kraken and survived, though, and they’d say a mile and a half is too small.
6. The cyclops may have been much, much weirder than you imagine.
When Odysseus and his men spent years finding their way home from Troy, one of their stops was on an island inhabited by a man-eating cyclops. It was only through quick thinking that Odysseus was able to escape without getting munched!
Of course, that’s all just the stuff of myths, right?
Many believe that ancient Greeks and Romans based their mythology on the world around them, and the creatures they created came from the bones they found. So the cyclops, as National Geographic guesses, could have actually been much wrinklier. And less human. And had a trunk.
And two eyes.
It was an early relative of the elephant, Deinotherium giganteum, and the place where it’s trunk was became the cyclops’ single giant terrifying eye.
So what can this tell us about fairy tales? Well, our ancestors may not have known the exact animal names we know today, but they weren't dumb.
They did their best to make sense of the world around them through the stories they told, stories that were passed around and elaborated as they aged. Through those stories, they created characters that captured our imaginations.
And it seems as if some stories may have held more truth than we gave them credit for.