Five “Real” Sea Monsters Brought to Life by Early Naturalists

From kraken to mermaids, some monsters are real—if you know how to look for them

A "Sea Devil" as depicted by Conrad Gessner in Historia Animalium, 2nd ed, 1604. (Smithsonian Biodiversity Heritage Library)
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Hail Hydra

The hydra is a “mythical” beast most commonly described as having nine heads, each of which will regenerate if decapitated. The Greek hero Hercules was commanded to kill a Hydra as his second labor, and a marble tablet in the Vatican depicting this exploit interprets the hydra as a strikingly octopus-like monster. In his 1604 work Historia Animalium, Conrad Gessner depicts the hydra, seen above, with suction-cup like spots on its body. Many scholars have postulated that the hydra is based on octopuses. After all, their many tentacles could be misinterpreted as heads, and octopuses can regenerate lost limbs, possibly explaining the unending head supply of the hydra.

Even so, many naturalists believed the hydra to be a real creature well into the 18th century. Albertus Seba, a famed apothecary from Amsterdam, boasted an extensive cabinet of curiosities filled with many magnificent biodiversity specimens. In the mid-1700s, Seba published an account of his cabinet in Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, et iconibus artificiosissimis expressio, per universam physices historiam. This work included an image of a hydra, based on a specimen held by the Burgomeister of Hamburg. Linnaeus later proved this particular specimen to be a fake, an amalgamation of snakeskins and weasel heads.

Debunking longstanding conceptions of the octopus as a terrible, vicious monster, however, has proven more difficult. Like the giant squid, the octopus has long held an unwarranted reputation as a monster. “Their strangely repulsive appearance, and the fictional stories of their attacks, have built up in the popular mind a picture of the ‘devil fish’ which no amount of accurate description is ever likely to cut down to authentic size,” mused Frank W. Lane, author of Kingdom of the Octopus (1962).

“The octopus is, in fact, a gentle, curious creature with a surprising ‘intelligence,’” argues marine biologist Richard Ellis of the American Museum of Natural History. More than 300 species are recognized, constituting over a third of all cephalopods. They are perhaps the most intelligent invertebrates, demonstrating complex problem-solving abilities and the use of tools. In the case of the octopus, it is more a story of the monster that simply misunderstood.

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