(The following post has a Stomach-Churning Rating of 3/10; the dried fish may not get you, but the bad jokes could. A respite before I slap some freezer-spawned Grand Guignolishness on you in future posts.)
Continuing this crazy summer’s theme of anatomy exhibits in museums, here’s a different twist: using cadavers, or mockups of animal bodies, to create chimeras – fusions of the bodies of multiple species to create new, fanciful organisms. This post was inspired, and will be illustrated, by my visit to Salzburg, Austria’s Haus der Natur, which is well worth a visit for its eclectic cornucopia of exhibits. I’ve also read that the Field Museum’s Mythic Creatures is worth a peek. The post is particularly timely as true chimeras are more and more a thing of scientific reality these days (unsettling testimonial here), although lion-(dragon/snake)-goat hybrids are not coming anytime soon–we can all hope. Enjoy the links! I’ve added a lot of external links to more content if you want to further explore this post’s subjects.
Anyway, my favourite Salzburg escape (from Mozart overdoses that are an all too real- and lethal- threat) was the “Fabel und Mythos” exhibit in the “Mensch und Natur” section of Haus der Natur, which is about just what it sounds like: how natural history and mythology/fantasy intersect. That theme is a passion of mine, as a sci fi/B-movie monster/horror/fantasy film and book fan and as a scientist. It is a big part of why I became a scientist (especially evolutionary biologist/anatomist/palaeontologist) — the junctures of art and science, imagination and reason, fantasy and reality, fascinate me, and if teamed up with the grotesque, monstrous, whimsical and nightmarish, I’m helpless to resist, much as I suspect many of this blog’s readers are. So sit back and enjoy.
Chimeras (in the broader sense of mixed-up animals) have a long history of cultural significance, from Greek myth (and an atrocious recent film featuring The Worthington) even to the godfather of taxonomy, Carl von Linne, and his Animalia Paradoxa. The chimeras (and basilisks, cockatrices, etc.) have featured prominently in the art of the past as well as of the present. People today remain fascinated by the role chimeras and other anatomical tomfooleries have played in hucksterism and hoaxes, as evidenced by many online exhibits such as the Museum of Hoaxes, 15 Craziest Biological Hoaxes, April Fool’s hoaxes, kickass artwork, lamest hoaxes, posts by The Bloggess, sightings of real (i.e. freakish) unicorns in real life, and taxidermy-gone-berserk sites like here and here and here and this cautionary tale; this also overlaps with cryptozoology and WTF-is-that internet fetishes. And let’s not forget the man-bear-pig. No, we shan’t forget that… Nor shall palaeontologists soon forget some famous chimeras in our field, particularly the infamous Piltdown man and Archaeoraptor. These hoaxes incidentally, ended up being not just a temporary embarrassment for science, but also an exemplar of how science is a self-correcting process, so frauds inevitably get unmasked– and in some cases (e.g. Archaeoraptor consisting of two very important legitimate fossils!), science makes new discoveries and advances in that process of corrective peer review.
First up in this blog post: the Bavarian Wolpertingers (leaking into native Austrian culture as the Raurackl; AKA Rasselbock, Dilldapp, Skvader and other names; and leaking into video games too)! The wolpertinger is a small and not-so-scary chimera, but often with fairy powers, and is very much akin to that folkloristic mainstay of Americana, the jackrabbit-pronghorn lovechild called the Jackalope. In contrast, however, the jackalope mainly has powers of being a lame souvenir, although fable has it they are prone to ventriloquism, pugnaciousness and whiskey– a fearsome combination (don’t try this at home). This panel from the museum illustrates the diversity and anatomical disparity of Wolpertingers:
And the museum did a great job making some physical chimeras using the wonders of taxidermy… aww, do you want one of your own now?
With closeups below–e.g. the jackalope from hell:
A flight of fancy?
Some quizzical quackery:
Echt toll, meine Freunde! A bit more about wolpertingers and their kin is here. Pokemonologists, take notes. People laughing at the alternative name for wolpertingers, “poontingers,” behave…
One can hardly discuss chimeras and fake animals/taxidermy hoaxes without getting into mermaids (no, I won’t discuss THAT recent TV debacle) and then into Jenny Hanivers; “devil fish”, seabishops or sea fairies. The hanivers go back to at least the 16th century, even being used by sailors to prove they’d had an exotic adventure after their voyages, or sold to supplement their meager salaries. There is plenty written on this phenomenon and how numerous people were skate punk’d (AHEM) by a simple dried fish. But then, skates (not to be confused with an altogether different, but related, kind of chimera) do look odd, and many people don’t know their anatomy or are just credulous, prone to self-deception and confirmation bias.
Stuart Pond was so kind as to send pics of a J.H. that he has in his shed (spinoff potential: What’s in Stu’s Shed???) for me to share— thanks again man! Note the apparent “legs” (probably organs used in mating'; claspers; but sometimes just snipped bits of the tail, which is also evident here):
Obviously the typical Jenny Haniver is a skate that has been messed with a bit to emphasize the humanoid features, but then there’s a sucker born every minute, and PT Barnum famously took advantage of that rhythmic nativity in the 1842 hoax he called the Fiji (Feejee) mermaid, which was a monkey’s head/torso with fish body and papier maché coating. Below, a wolpertinger-like “horn” is visible; this is the remnants of a nasal process of the chondrocranium of the ray; the flanges to either side of it are parts of the front of the head that have been cut apart to make the haniver’s head look more humanoid:
With a “face” only a mermother- or chondrichthyologist- could love– note that the “eyes” are actually nasal openings:
And thanks to Sven Sachs for some extra photos of a Jenny Haniver at the Zoological Museum Liege in Belgium– thanks Sven!:
But, in the world of academic science, there is perhaps no greater you-fools-I-invented-a-fanciful-critter hoax/joke than the Rhinogradentia (snouters, or rhinogrades), rumoured in 1905 but first described in Gerolf Steiner/Harald Stümpke’s (latter= pseudonym; AKA Karl D.S. Geeste, Hararuto Shutyunpuke) wonderfully over-the-top, tongue-in-cheekish 1957 faux-scientific monographic book Bau und Leben der Rhinogradentia. Darren Naish‘s blog Tetrapod Zoology (along with others, in 4 parts) has done far better justice to the snouters than I could ever hope to, and others have contributed to the legend. But at least I can share some pics of the first reconstructed (or were they, hmm…?) rhinogrades I’ve ever seen in physical form (again from the Haus der Natur):
Here are the closeups; first Orchidiopsis rapax:
And next Otopteryx volitans:
Last but not beast, an infamous nasobeme, Nasobema lyricum!
Whether this post was hit or myth, please contribute more thoughts, stories and pictures in the Comments below. What’s your favourite hoax story, conglomerated creature, misidentified monstrous mush, wee little false beastie or taxidermy horror/beauty? Why do you enjoy fanciful creations like these?
And watch out- those chimeras can pack a whallop!