Tall Tales of the Natural World

Highlighting Tales around our Favorite Animals with wings, scales, and tails

By Emma Schell, Scheduling Coordinator
August 1, 2020

This fall at the Chattahoochee Nature Center, we are highlighting some of our favorite animals with wings, scales, and tails, but we also want to take a look at some of the TALES surrounding these critters.

Folklore and mythology are full of stories about all manner of remarkable and magical creatures. Though many of these tales are fictitious, we can turn to nature to discover the very real animals that inspired their stories.

Here are five mythical tales and their real-life counterparts:


1. Mermaids and Manatees

Photo Credit: PixelBay

Stories of mermaids, sirens, and other humanoid water-dwellers are found in much of 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 convince sailors that they had seen a mermaid.


2. The Kraken and The Giant Squid

Photo Credit: PixelBay

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.

3. Ghosts and Barn Owls

What better combination could we find than ghosts and barn owls? Ghosts star in of dozens of tales and stories, and barn owls can be found at the Chattahoochee Nature Center. In fact, if you’ve visited the barn owl enclosure and read the signs there, you already know about this 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.

4. Will-o’-the-Wisps and Methane

Photo Credit: Anthony Roberts

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.


5. Butterflies and Witches

This last one doesn’t fit as neatly into the list, as tales 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 this new flying form.

There are many more fascinating tales about creatures from myth and lore, but our real-life animal neighbors are just as exciting! Visit CNC this fall to meet these animals, hear their stories, and explore a world of Wings, Scales, and Tails.