What’s not to love about Halloween? It’s the time of the year when mischief, mystery, and creativity combine to produce an exciting night for people of all ages. We collect candy, attend parties, and often dress up as our favorite fictional characters or mythical creatures.
Many of these creatures, at one point or another, were believed to be real, but we can turn to nature to explain many of the stories and sightings around them.
Here are five mythical creatures and their real-life counterparts:
- Mermaids and Manatees
Stories of mermaids, sirens, and other humanoid water-dwellers abound in seafaring lore. In many myths, these creatures appear as women, sometimes with tails and sometimes without, who cause all sorts of ill luck for ships and their crews.
Today, many historical mermaid sightings are attributed to manatees and their close relative the dugong. These animals are capable of performing “tail stands” which allow them to emerge vertically from the surface of the water, and they are also able to turn their heads side-to-side like a human. From far off, these behaviors may have been enough to make sailors think they had seen a mermaid rising from the ocean.
- The Kraken and The Giant Squid
Another creature of nautical fame, the Kraken is a colossal monster from Nordic lore said to attack ships by crushing them with its giant tentacles or by creating strong whirlpools to submerge them. The myths of the Kraken are now attributed to the very real giant squid, identified and described for the first time in 1853 by Norwegian naturalist Japetus Steenstrup.
Though we may have debunked the myth of the Kraken, the giant squid is a legendary creature in its own right. It is one of the largest invertebrates on earth, and the first video of one swimming in the ocean wasn’t captured until 2013. Though we know much more than we did in 1853, the giant squid’s elusiveness means we still have much more to learn.
- Ghosts and Barn Owls
What better combination could we find than ghosts and barn owls? Ghosts are a staple of Halloween movies, decorations, and costumes, and barn owls can be found in the Chattahoochee Nature Center’s aviaries. In fact, if you’ve visited the barn owl enclosure and read the signs there, you already know about this mythic relationship.
Barn owls can be found nesting in barns, attics, and even bell towers, and they emit a distinctive screeching call which can be quite jarring. Combine this call with the reflection of moonlight off a barn owl’s white feathers, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a ghost sighting.
- Will-o’-the-Wisps and Methane
Will-o’-the-Wisp is one of the names given to lights that are sometimes seen floating in swampy areas. In some folklore these lights are attributed to spirits or fairies and are often ascribed the menacing motive of luring travelers away from safe paths.
One potential explanation for these lights is the combustion of natural gases. Swamps play host to lots of decaying matter, and this decomposition leads to the release of many gases, including methane. It’s thought that methane, in combination with the perfect amount of other gases, may ignite in the air, causing these small floating lights to appear for short periods of time. So there are likely no goblins in the swamp, just some really cool chemistry.
- Butterflies and Witches
This last one doesn’t fit as neatly into the list, as stories about witches don’t originate from butterflies. In fact, the relationship might go the other way.
If you’ve stopped to think about it, you may have realized that “butterfly” is an interesting name choice. What do these insects have to do with butter? The origin of the word is not known for certain, but one explanation turns to witches. It is said that people once believed witches could turn themselves into butterflies and would steal milk and butter in their new flying form.
There are many fascinating stories about creatures from myth and lore, but our real-life animal neighbors can be just as exciting. You can meet many of these animals during the Chattahoochee Nature Center’s Halloween Hikes on October 19, 20, 26, and 27.
Embark on an evening hike through the forest and meet animals like the red-tailed hawk, box turtle, gray fox, and more. Learn about the creatures in your own back yard and help share their stories the same way we share the stories of mermaids, ghosts, and witches. Learn more at www.bit.ly/CNCHalloweenHikes .
The mission of the Chattahoochee Nature Center is to connect people with nature. For more information visit www.chattnaturecenter.org.