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Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids

Exhibit Examines the Relationship Between Nature and Legend

PHILADELPHIA, January 11, 2019

The world is full of stories about brave heroes, magical events and fantastic beings. A new exhibition opening Saturday, Feb. 16 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University traces the natural and cultural roots of some of the most enduring creatures of myth.

Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids showcases the stories of mythical beings that have been with us for thousands of years and how they were often inspired by real fossils or living animals. Mythic Creatures features dozens of unique cultural objects that illustrate the surprising similarities and differences in the ways people around the world envision and depict mythic creatures, some which continue to inspire us today.

Organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the exhibit offers visitors range of colorful models and realistic cast fossils of prehistoric animals. Visitors can use these to investigate how the creatures depicted could have inspired people — through misidentification, speculation, fear or imagination — to conjure up some legendary creatures.

For example, visitors will discover how narwhal tusks were believed to be magical remnants of unicorn horns, how dinosaur fossils may have been mistaken for the remains of griffins, and how tales of sea monsters may simply have been fishermen’s tales of real creatures such as the giant squid.

“I think our ancestors would have been relieved had they known that the scary and odd-looking creatures they encountered were really just part of our magnificent natural world,” said Academy President and CEO Scott Cooper, PhD. “Every animal and plant has its place in the ecosystems of the planet and each has a role to play, as our Academy scientists continue to demonstrate through their research. By experiencing this exhibit, we hope our visitors will have a renewed appreciation for all living creatures.”

Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids will be on view through Sunday, June 9, 2019.

The extended opening weekend, Feb. 16, 17 and 18, features unusual hands-on activities for all ages that draw on the nature of discovery and illustrate the difference between scientific fact and fiction. Visitors will be able to make unicorn poop soap slime, examine Academy specimens, practice penmanship with squid ink, watch live sea monkeys in action, and much more.

Highlights of the exhibit include a:

  • Vibrant sculpture of the African water spirit Mami Wata.
  • Replica “Feejee mermaid” of the type made famous by showman P. T. Barnum, created by sewing the head and torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish.
  • “Life-size” model of a European unicorn.
  • Dramatic model of a kraken, whose tentacles appear to rise out of the floor as if surfacing from the sea.


Interactive stations invite visitors to:

  • Rearrange scale models of mammoth bones to look like a giant human skeleton.
  • Build their own dragon and watch as it comes alive in a virtual environment.
  • Watch video interviews with experts highlighting the significance of mythical creatures and their possible real-life counterparts.

Mythic Creatures is organized by several main themes.

  • Sea Monsters: When European explorers set out on oceanic voyages of discovery in the 1400s and 1500s, they were sailing into uncharted waters. Sea monsters were a concern for them, and frightening rumors ran rampant. The stories they brought back were a mix of accurate observations, honest mistakes and outright tall tales.
  • Mermaids: One of the most popular mythic creatures across many cultures is the half-human, half-fish mermaid. Mermaids in Europe, Africa and the Americas all carry combs and mirrors and were thought to be beautiful, seductive and dangerous — like the sea itself.
  • Giants, Griffins and Unicorns: Many mythical creatures appear to have body parts from ordinary animals combined in unusual ways. A few experts believe that the legends of the griffin, a creature combining body parts of both an eagle and a lion, originated in the Gobi Desert around 2,000 years ago when Scythian miners stumbled upon the fossil remains of the four-legged, beaked dinosaur Protoceratops. Other creatures look like familiar animals but have extraordinary and magical powers, such as the European unicorn, a horse with a magical horn thought to counteract poisons. The enormous bones of mammoths, mastodons and woolly rhinoceroses found by ancient Greeks may have inspired tales of giants.
  • Dragons: In Asian tales, dragons ascend from the seas, lakes and rivers, up to the sky, bringing rain needed for cultivation. In stories from Europe, dragons can slaughter people with their putrid breath, or spit fire and set cities ablaze. The earliest dragon legends date back thousands of years, and the creature still haunts our imagination today.


Members of the media are invited to an exclusive preview of Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids on Thursday, Feb. 14, beginning 10:30 a.m. Light refreshments available 10-10:30 a.m.

To download images, visit the Press Room.