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Rabbits, rats, humans, horses, snakes and sea horses all have something in common: spinal columns. Though they may attract less everyday attention, invertebrates surpass backboned animals in both diversity and sheer numbers. Some of the more populous invertebrates sharing our planet today include sponges, cnidarians (including corals, jellyfish and anemones), mollusks (snails to octopi), ringed worms, flatworms, echinoderms (such as sea urchins, sea cucumbers and starfish) and arthropods (ranging from lobsters to well-mannered ladybugs to horrifying spiders). These animals, so different from ourselves, have perplexed naturalists for centuries, presenting puzzles such as whether sponges are animals at all, to how caterpillars transmogrify into butterflies, to why marine mollusk fossils turn up inside mountain rocks.

Most Recent Additions

Hyolith Jan-12-2017
Petrified worm Jan-04-2017
Clamshell pair mold Nov-25-2016
King bee

Year: 1679
Scientist/artist: Moses Rusden
Originally published in: A Further Discovery of Bees
Now appears in: Man and the Natural World by Keith Thomas
Besides plants, agriculturalists thought about their pollinators, and many looked to nature for justification of how human society was ordered. Monarchists happily pointed to bees as a natural example of "regal power." But "Rex" is a term for a male monarch. One 18th-century encyclopedia sheepishly explained that the term "Queen-Bee" replaced "King-Bee." Here we see a king bee and associated plebeians. An example of good breeding, many also believe, bees simply wouldn't produce for owners who were quarrelsome or unchaste.
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Year: c. 1200
Originally published in: The Aberdeen Bestiary
Now appears at: De apibus; Of bees
With military precision, bees fly into their hives in this glistening illumination. The University of Aberdeen provides a translation of the 13th-century manuscript: "Of bees Bees, apes, are so called either because they hold on to things with their feet, or because they are born without feet (the Latin word for 'foot' is pes). For afterwards they acquire both feet and wings. Expert in the task of making honey, they occupy the places assigned to them; they construct their dwelling-places with indescribable skill, and store away honey from a variety of flowers. They fill their fortress, made from a network of wax, with countless offspring. Bees have an army and kings; they fight battles. They flee from smoke; they are irritated by noise; many are found to have been born from the corpses of oxen. To produce them, you beat the flesh of dead calves, so that worms come forth from the putrefying blood; these later become bees. Properly speaking, however, only the creatures that come from oxen are called bees; those that come from horses, are hornets; those from mules, drones; wasps, from asses." These bees look like hand grenades with fins, and might look a bit creepy if it weren't for their winsome little faces.

Imaginary bugs

Year: 1561-1596
Artists: Georg Bocskay and Joris Hoefnagel
Originally published in: Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta
Now appears at: Damselfly, Carnation, Insect, Caterpillar, Ladybird, English Walnut, and Marine Mollusk Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Discussed in: Nature Illuminated published by The J. Paul Getty Museum
Two luminaries in the court of the Holy Roman Empire, Bocskay and Hoefnagel collaborated on a single beautiful book without ever meeting. In the 1560s, master calligrapher Bocskay demonstrated his skill in beautiful writing for Ferdinand I. In the 1590s, Hoefnagel added illustrations to the book under the patronage of Ferdinand's grandson Rudolf II. Hoefnagel's illustrations were exquisite enough to compete with the letters, but he apparently aimed more for beauty than accuracy. Modern identifications of the bugs in this illustration include a caterpillar considered unidentifiable, and a damselfly and insect deemed imaginary. The ladybug is entirely recognizable.

Imaginary bugs

Year: 1561-1596
Artists: Georg Bocskay and Joris Hoefnagel
Originally published in: Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta
Now appears at: Dog-Tooth Violet and Butterflies Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Discussed in: Nature Illuminated published by The J. Paul Getty Museum
Joris Hoefnagel's butterflies neatly occupy the available space around Georg Bocskay's calligraphy, and each winsome little bug sports a curling proboscis that nicely matches the Gothic and italic script. But the insects don't resemble any known species, and are best considered imaginary.

Lantern flies and cicada

Year: 1719
Scientist/artist: Maria Sibylla Merian
Originally published in: Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Dutch edition)
Now appears at: Double-blossomed pomegranate (Punica granatum) with lantern flies (Fulgora laternaria) and cicada (Fidicina mannifera) Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Discussed in: Chrysalis by Kim Todd
Maria Sibylla Merian was a pioneer, not only in traveling from Europe to South America unaccompanied by a man, but also in understanding the mind-boggling process that turns caterpillars into butterflies and moths. Yet even she made the occasional mistake. With respect to the lantern fly with a head shaped like a peanut, her mistake was not in the illustration — the big, weird bug is all too real — but in her account of some lantern flies in her possession. Merian sailed from the Netherlands to Surinam in 1699 and stayed for two years. She later recounted that one night during her stay, everyone in her household was awakened by a loud noise coming from a box housing lantern flies she had recently collected. When she opened the box, she claimed, "a fiery flame came out." She made no mention of having to extinguish any actual fire, but more puzzling is the fact that her account doesn't match what's known about the lantern fly today: it isn't noisy and its head doesn't emit any light. Kim Todd speculates that Merian was also keeping a cicada (also pictured) in the box; local Native Americans had told her that cicadas were parents of lantern flies. We can laugh off such a mistake today, but given how little was known about the insects in Merian's day, a cicada giving birth to lantern fly would be no harder to believe than caterpillar turning into a butterfly. But that still doesn't explain the "fiery flame." Todd speculates further that maybe a firefly was also in the box, but she offers another explanation. Naturalists had claimed throughout the 17th century that the insect emitted light from its peanut-shaped noggin. Beyond that, Merian had to make a living, and more exotic specimens capable of emitting light could command more interest from buyers back home. Merian was, in Todd's words, "unable, in this instance, to step outside the frame of her culture. It's the trap for every naturalist, even those most committed to direct observation."

Lantern flies and cicada

Century: 13th
Appears in: Bestiary: MS Bodley 764 by Richard Barber
"The scorpion is a land worm; it belongs with worms rather than serpents; it is armed with a sting; and it gets its name from Greek, because it stings with its tail and spreads its poison in a gaping would. The scorpion has this property, that it stings the palm of the hand. The scorpion signifies the devil or those who serve him." It's hard to tell which would be more horrifying: an encounter with an animal looking like this picture, or with an actual scorpion. Maybe the illuminator who drew this illustration was lucky not to know what a real scorpion looks like.


Year: 1754
Scientist/artist: Louis Renard
Originally published in: Poissons, Ecrevisses et Crabes
Now appears in: Natural Histories edited by Tom Baione, and Renard's Book of Fantastical Fish (
Reynard's 18th-century volume may be the first full-color book every printed about fish and crustaceans, a lavish work with each copper-engraved illustration colored by hand. "Fantastic" applies to the work in a couple ways. It's a compliment on the visual feast, but also a comment on its accuracy. About 9 percent of the fish and invertebrates shown the book just don't exist, and nearly all the rest show some sort of embellishment. Some of the crabs pictured here sport winsome little faces, especially the center crab at the bottom of the page. Born in France, Louis Reynard fled religious persecution in his home country, settling in the Netherlands and never leaving. So he never saw in the wild the fish and crustaceans he pictured. But that wasn't too unusual in the 18th century, and despite the exaggerated, neon-hued and fantastical pictures, the book does show real fish around Indonesia's Ambon Island. As pollution has whittled away marine species in the region, this book preserves a decent record of what once thrived there.

Fossil catalog

Year: 1760
Scientist: Edward Lhwyd
Originally published in: Editio Altera
Now appears in: Oxford University Museum of Natural History: Edward Lhwyd (
By the late 17th century, Niels Stensen (Steno) and Robert Hooke had advanced cogent arguments that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms, but plenty of their contemporaries weren't convinced. One of those was Edward Lhwyd, successor to Robert Plot as keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Lhwyd had a different explanation for ornate mollusk shells in England's rocks. His biographer, J.M. Edmonds explained, "He suggested a sequence in which mists and vapours over the sea were impregnated with the 'seed' of marine animals. These were raised and carried for considerable distances before they descended over land in rain and fog. The 'invisible animacula' then penetrated deep into the Earth and there germinated; and in this way complete replicas of sea organisms, or sometimes only parts of individuals, were reproduced in stone." Lhwyd compiled a catalog of some of the fossils he believed had formed this way, namely the British fossils of the Ashmolean Museum. Entitled Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia, it was originally published in 1699. After Lhwyd's death, a new edition was published: Editio Altera. Shown here are assorted echinoderm fossils and a trilobite.


Year: 1853
Scientist: Edward Forbes
Originally published in: A History of British Mollusca and Their Shells (Vol. 1)
Now appears in: "Deserts on the Sea Floor" by Thomas R. Anderson and Tony Rice in Endeavour
This "sea monster" depiction is probably pretty accurate. It's of a nudibranch, a mollusk without a shell, but with plenty of elaborate protuberances. (Nudibranch loosely translates as "mollusk with a nudie butt.") Forbes's mistake wasn't in the depiction of any particular sea creature. Instead, it was in the assumption that below a certain depth, the sea was pretty much lifeless. In fact, the assumption didn't seem unreasonable at the time — ocean depths saw little light, intense water pressure, and frigid temperatures. The discovery of sea floor vents teeming with life was a long way off. However, dredging the ocean bottom had brought up a variety of exotic sea creatures starting decades before Forbes advanced his lifeless seabed hypothesis.


Year: 1655
Scientist/artist: Ole Worm
Originally published in: Museum Wormianum
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library
The curiosity collector Ole Worm compiled a book of his treasures, which was published one year after his death. In Worm's day, many Europeans still believed that ammonites — extinct relatives of the nautilus — were petrified snakes. Indeed, the description of this ammonite begins with "Lapis Sceleton Serpentis" ("The stone skeleton of the serpent"), though in the very next sentence, Worm indicates that the fossil resembles a serpent's shape. Nineteenth-century encyclopedias stated that Worm interpreted ammonites as fossil adders, but this was the same naturalist who figured out that fabled unicorn horns really came from narwhals. He might have been figuring out some fossils, too. Later in the 17th century, the London-based polymath Robert Hooke noted ammonites' similarities to the modern nautilus, but also recognized significant differences, such as the complex suture lines illustrated so exquisitely in this picture. Hooke was likely one of the first scholars to ponder extinction.

Clamshell pair mold

Year: 1655
Scientist/artist: Ole Worm
Originally published in: Museum Wormianum
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library
Discussed in: They Lying Stones of Marrakech by Stephen Jay Gould
In Ole Worm's day, fossils were so poorly understood that nobody realized this object was the an internal mold of a pair of clamshells. Known as Bucardites, they were regarded as hearts of bulls. Bulls' hearts actually counted among the less salacious stony objects found in European rock layers in the 17th century; some internal molds of brachiopod fossils were noted for their resemblance to lady parts.


Year: 1656
Scientist/artist: Lodovico Moscardo
Originally published in: Museo Moscardo
Now appears in: "From Petrified Snakes, through Giant 'Foraminifers', to Extinct Cephalopods: The Early History of Ammonite Studies in the Italian Peninsula" by Marco Romano in Historical Biology
Around the middle of the 17th century, Lodovico Moscardo published a richly illustrated book about his personally owned museum, including a picture of ammonites. In describing these fossils, he rejected the "sports of nature" explanation commonly advanced at the time, saying that the Earth had simply made something that looked lifelike. Instead he endorsed a modern definition of fossils: the remains of extinct organisms. Even more impressive, he also rejected the explanation that these fossils could be accounted for by a worldwide flood, instead suggesting that the world ocean had once occupied areas now above water. But he thought these fossils were petrified snakes. Historian Marco Romano remarks that this incident, "highlights the difficulty in the interpretation of some kinds of fossils (especially those lacking clear modern analogues), even when they are correctly understood as petrified objects of organic origin." Ammonites, which looked sort of but not quite like nautilus shells, perplexed generations of fossil collectors. Some naturalists floated the idea that ammonites might be giant ancestors of today's tiny foraminifera.


Year: 1641
Scientist/artist: Athanasius Kircher
Originally published in: The Magnet
Now appears in: A Man of Misconceptions by John Glassie and The Ecstatic Journey by Ingrid D. Rowland
Unlike the even bigger, hairier North American version, the Italian tarantula has been deemed fairly harmless (though still horrifying to anybody who hates spiders). In the 17th century, Europeans still believed this spider's bite capable of inflicting maladies ranging from lethargy to delusions to salacious behavior. Curing the maladies entailed listening to high-tempo songs known as "tarantellas." Spider victims reportedly danced involuntarily to the music, sometimes for hours, and even people who'd been bitten years earlier joined in the dancing. The 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher, who equated magnetism with pretty much all natural forces invisible to human eyes, said that the musical cure really worked by drawing out the venom magnetically. He featured the spiders and a tarantella score snippet in his book on magnetism.
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Leggy trilobite

Year: 1774
Scientist/artist: J.S. Schroeter
Now appears in: Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey
Trilobites were ancient marine arthropods that went extinct before the first dinosaurs evolved. Trilobite fossils have been found in abundance, but the fossils usually consist only of the shells covering the tops of their bodies. This rather froggy looking trilobite depiction includes purely speculative legs — as well as an extra head.

Flat fish

Year: 1698
Scientist: Edward Lhwyd
Originally published in: "Part of a Letter to Dr. Martin Lister, Fell. of the Coll. of Phys. and R. S., Concerning Several Regularly Figured Stones Lately Found by Him" in Philosophical Transactions
Now appears in: Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey
In the late 17th century, Edward Lhwyd wrote a letter to his friend Martin Lister about what the savants termed "figured stones" collected in South Wales. An excerpt of that letter was later published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Included among the oddities was what Lhwyd called "the Sceleton of some flat fish." Lhwyd had indeed found a skeleton — or the fossil remains of it — but it wasn't the internal skeleton of a bony fish. It was the exoskeleton of a trilobite. Richard Fortey remarks that you can easily see how Lhwyd mistook an unfamiliar invertebrate fossil for a vertebrate skeleton, and Lhwyd even embellished the drawing with a fish-fin fringe. Now identified as Ogygiocarella debuchii, the fossil may be the first trilobite to be described in a scientific journal. In the 19th century, when gentlemen geologists were identifying rock formations and assembling the geological timescale still used today, they came to value Ogygiocarella debuchii as a useful identifier of rocks from the Ordovician Period, roughly 490 million to 440 million years ago.


Year: 1857
Scientist/artist: Philip Henry Gosse
Originally published in: Omphalos
Now appears in: Glimpses of the Wonderful by Ann Thwaite
Compared to the previous example, there's nothing wrong with this depiction of trilobites. The 19th-century text surrounding this picture, however, was pretty weird. A devout Christian, Gosse struggled to reconcile his literal belief in the Bible with mounting evidence that, compared to humans, the Earth was ancient. His solution was to coin the term Prochronism, which says life goes in a circle, and to create the Earth and its inhabitants at any time, God apparently had little choice but to create "evidence" of an earlier existence. Such evidence included fossils like trilobites and even Adam's belly button. The title of the book, in fact, was Greek for "navel." Scientists ignored Gosse's hypothesis (with good reason as they had no way to test it). And although Gosse insisted God wasn't playing any tricks, many Christians thought that was the only logical conclusion they could take from his work, and they largely rejected it, too. Still, the argument that God uses fossils just to test believers' faith surfaces even today.

Trilobite in seal

Year: 1866
Originally published as: Dudley Borough Seal
Now appears in: "Legacy of the Locust — Dudley and its Famous Trilobite Calymene blumenbachii" by Mikulic and Kluessendorf in Fabulous Fossils — 300 Years of Worldwide Research on Trilobites
Calymene blumenbachii is a trilobite fossil from the Silurian Period over 400 million years ago. This fossil species is abundant in Dudley, England — so much so that the fossil figures in the Dudley seal designed in the 19th century, when the city became an early adopter of geotourism. For many years, local quarrymen and miners referred to the characteristic trilobite as the "Dudley locust." You might wonder how anybody could see a locust in this three-lobed bug, but the miners' guess was closer than Edward Lhwyd's characterization of the fossil as the "the Sceleton of some flat fish." At least the miners got the fact that it was an arthropod. Furthermore, what constitutes a locust apparently wasn't always been clearly defined. In fact, the Dudley locust illustrates problems for early fossil collectors: a dearth of modern analogs for fossil species (the trilobite's closest living relative is the horseshoe crab — not exactly a familiar animal in 18th- and 19th-century England), and imperfect preservation (trilobite fossils usually consist of the carapace but not the legs, which are important in arthropod classification).
The trilobite in this seal might have had an odd nickname, but it isn't the seal's most fantastic creature; right below the fossil arthropod is a flaming salamander.


Year: 1565
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: De Omni Rerum Fossilium
Now appears in: "Herbert Toms (1874-1940), Witch Stones, and Porosphaera Beads" by Christopher J. Duffin in Folklore
Before there was the rabbit's foot and the horseshoe, there was the witch stone. Naturally perforated flints, many of them fossil sponges from the Cretaceous, served the purpose of guarding against evil witches, pixies, nightmares and sickness. Some residents of the English countryside kept the stones to protect their horses into the 20th century. In the 16th century, Gesner documented another application of the witch stone: Inserting a cow's teat through a witch stone during milking was supposed to keep the milk free of blood. Gesner passed along folklore, but expressed reservations with some of the claims he relayed. Regarding this claim, he was blunt. He called it "brainless."

Pearl ring

Year: 1587 (Physiologus text), 250-400 (ring)
Text originally published in: Physiologus
Image appears at: Ring Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program
Material discussed in: Physiologus translated by Michael Curley
Physiologus dates back to Antiquity, and some scholars think it might have originated in Egypt. Whatever its origins, this collection of legends about nature was appropriated in the Middle Ages to impart lessons in Christian morality, sometimes under the same title, sometimes in a bestiary. Advising readers on what leads to heaven or hell was the work's first goal; relaying remotely accurate information about nature was a distant second. In the chapter on the "oyster-stone," Physiologus read, "I will tell you how the pearl is born. There is a stone in the sea called the oyster. It comes out of the sea early in the morning ahead of the light, and, opening its shell (that is, its mouth), it swallows the heavenly dew and the rays of the sun and moon and the light from the stars above. And thus is born the pearl from the most high celestial bodies." Pearl formation would be understood much better around the turn of the 20th century when culturing became widespread, although the Chinese mastered making mabé pearl Buddhas as early as the sixth century AD.

Rock pregnant with shell

Year: 1648
Scientist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Musaeum Metallicum
Now appears in: "Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605): The Study of Trace Fossils During the Renaissance" by Andrea Baucon in Ichnos
Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi took the concept of rocks ready to give birth even further than Gesner. This image depicts a "rock pregnant with a shell." Given the limited understanding of fossilization at the time, his suspicions were understandable. To his credit, Aldrovandi did discuss petrifaction when describing a mammoth tooth.

Petrified worm

Year: 1648
Scientist: Ulisse Aldrovandi
Originally published in: Musaeum Metallicum
Now appears in: "Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605): The Study of Trace Fossils During the Renaissance" by Andrea Baucon in Ichnos
Sometimes Aldrovandi regarded fossils as remains of once-living organisms, and sometimes he characterized fossils as completely inorganic. This tube-like structure he described as a "petrified sea worm." Modern science historians studying Aldrovandi's work are lucky because many of the specimens in his curiosity cabinet survive today in modern collections in Bologna, in Museo Capellini and Palazzo Poggi. But some specimens must be identified solely from the surviving illustrations. Baucon suspects that this is a sabellariid tube: a fossil left by a reef-building tube worm that cemented together sand and shell pieces to make a hard structure. So while a squishy worm couldn't fossilize, the structure it made could, meaning Aldrovandi's guess wasn't too far off the mark.


Year: 1684
Scientist: Filippo Buonanni
Originally published in: Recreatio Mentis et Oculi
Now appears in: "Contributions to the History of Geological Sciences: Illustrations of the Kircher Museum Naturalistic Collections" by Bruno Accordi in Geol. Rom.
Besides cataloging Kircher's museum, Buonanni (also known as Bonanni) undertook work of his own. While the illustrations were reasonably accurate, his speculations might best be euphemized as colorful. Buonanni avoided definitively saying whether fossil shells had once been living organisms, but he discussed at length whether pearls resulted from dew, why mollusks lack teeth and bones and why — in his own estimation at least — mollusks are lazy and stupid.
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Snake egg thief

Year: 1497
Originally appeared in: Medieval woodcut
Now appears in: The Star-Crossed Stone by Kenneth J. McNamara
Medieval Europeans didn't feel much affection for snakes, but still coveted snake eggs, believing they had magical powers. No less an authority than Pliny passed along advice on how to procure one of the precious items. The intrepid snake egg thief had to leap over a writhing mass of hissing snakes, toss the snake egg into the air, and apparently catch it in a piece of cloth. Another interpretation of the heist was that the snakes themselves would loft the eggs into the air. Either way, if the snake egg fell to the ground, so the rulebook read, its magical powers were lost. The only problem was that the objects thought to be snake eggs were really fossil sea urchins. Alternately called fairy loaves, pixie weights and shepherds' crowns, the fossils were believed to protect against bad luck, protect against illness, safeguard their owners from lightning, help the deceased on their journey to the afterlife, or help the deceased return to life. Humans apparently have a long history of collecting and revering fossil sea urchins. A hand axe with a fossil urchin embedded in it has been attributed to Homo heidelbergensis.
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Year: 1565
Scientist: Conrad Gesner
Originally published in: De Omni Rerum Fossilium
Now appears in: The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences by Frank Dawson Adams and The Star-Crossed Stone by Kenneth J. McNamara
In his book on fossils, Gesner outlined 15 different categories of fossils, everything from objects taking their names from heavenly bodies to objects resembling four-footed animals. In this illustration, the fossils on top looked to Gesner like serpent eggs, while the ones on the bottom resembled stars. In fact, both kinds were fossil echinoderms: marine invertebrates whose bodies are based on a five-fold plan. The top objects are fossil sea urchins, and the bottom objects are probably pieces of crinoid (sea lily) stems. Echinoderms have existed for hundreds of millions of years, and many species still live today. How many echinoderms Gesner saw in their original habitat is unknown, although he did identify a flint fossil as a petrified sea urchin. In other cases, he passed along folklore, still affected by a medieval world view.

Window decorated with urchins

Century: 12th
Photographed in: Linkenholt, England
Now appears in: "Shepherd's Crowns, Fairy Loaves and Thunderstones: The Mythology of Fossil Echinoids in England" by Kenneth J. McNamara in Myth and Geology (also discussed in The Star-Crossed Stone by Kenneth J. McNamara)
In 1871, the village of Linkenholt in northwestern Hampshire rebuilt a medieval church that had stood for centuries. The renovations at St. Peter's retained a tall, narrow window on the north side of the church — an odd choice since the window never admitted much light. Kenneth McNamara suspects the renovators preserved the window because of its decorations on the church's exterior: fossil echinoids, or sea urchins. Collected in large numbers by early humans, perhaps even by Homo heidelbergensis, fossil sea urchins have been known more recently as shepherds' crowns, fairy loaves and pixie heads. (A little closer to the truth, Renaissance potter Bernard Palissy called them sea hedgehogs.) In contrast to today's imagery of dainty winged creatures, Celtic mythology portrayed fairies and pixies as fearsome inhabitants of the afterlife, and the fossil urchins that looked a little bit like loaves of bread might have provided a sort of spiritual sustenance to the newly deceased. In more everyday uses, fossil urchins were placed on windowsills to forecast rain by sweating, or to protect a home's inhabitants from evil. McNamara posits several possible explanations for why the original builders of St. Peter's decorated the top of the window with fossil sea urchins, including medieval lore that north was the direction of the Devil. Many churches even provided small north-facing doors specifically for the perpetual troublemaker. Yet the Devil might not have been the only one to use the north door. Europeans' transition from Pagan to Christian religion didn't happen overnight, and many Pagan beliefs lingered long after the introduction of Christianity. McNamara writes, "During the early years of the Christian church, those who still clung to the old pagan beliefs could enter the church through this door. . . . Its identification with the Devil relates to the link that the early Christian church made between the old pagan ideas, which they wished to suppress." If so, then decorating the north side of the church with objects important to Pagan mythology would make sense.


Year: 1705
Scientist: Robert Hooke
Publisher: Richard Waller
Originally published in: The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke
Now appears in: The Star-Crossed Stone by Kenneth J. McNamara
The 17th-century polymath Robert Hooke largely left behind the quaint beliefs surrounding fossil echinoderms. He originally illustrated these fossil sea urchins, which he described as "Button-stones" and "Helmet-stones," to accompany a lecture he delivered on earthquakes to the Royal Society in 1668. After he died, his friend Waller published the illustrations. Of the fossils, Hooke observed, "All these and most other kinds of stony bodies which are formed thus strangely figured, do owe their formation and figuration, not to any kind of Plastick virtue inherent in the Earth, but to the shells of certain Shell-fishes, which, either by some Deluge, Inundation, earthquake, or some such other means, came to be thrown to that place, and there to be fill'd with some kind of Mudd or Clay, or petrifying Water, or some other substance, which in tract of time has been settled together and hardened in those shelly moulds into those shaped substances we now find them." One of the first savants to seriously consider extinction, Hooke advanced our understanding of what fossils really were.
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Future fossils

Year: 1804-1811
Scientist: James Parkinson
Originally published in: Organic Remains of a Former World
Now appears at: Scientist of the Day - James Parkinson from the Linda Hall Library (
By the dawn of the 19th century, gentlemen geologists' faith had begun to wane, at least when it came to the ability of the Noachian flood to explain every fossil on Earth, including those embedded deep within rocks. James Parkinson was a biblical-literalist holdout, and this frontispiece to his book shows an assortment of mollusks — freshly deposited future fossils — in the foreground. In the background is Noah's Ark, ending its 40-day journey at the end of a rainbow.


Year: 1977
Scientist: Simon Conway Morris
Artist: Marianne Collins
Appears in: Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould. Also discussed in The Crucible of Creation by Simon Conway Morris
If you're thinking this is the worst fabrication in history, think again. In fact, this depiction isn't far from the real thing. In 1909, C.D. Walcott began excavating a remarkable fossil locality known as the Burgess Shale, preserving some of the strangest fossils ever found. Paleontologists began reexamining Burgess Shale fossils in the latter half of the 20th century, and identified, among others, Hallucigenia shown here. Simon Conway Morris, who identified Hallucigenia, originally theorized that it might have walked on its seven pairs of spines. Later finds, and studies done by Hou Xianguang and Lars Ramsköld, showed that Hallucigenia actually had seven pairs of big tentacles (not the single set shown here) and probably walked on those while defending itself with menacing spines. In all fairness, Conway Morris's interpretation was based on incomplete data, and he himself pointed out the correction in The Crucible of Creation.


Year of correction: 2015
Appears in: "Hallucigenia's Head and the Pharyngeal Armature of Early Ecdysozoans" by Smith and Caron in Nature
The roughly 520-million-year-old, two-centimeter-long invertebrate Hallucigenia is generous; it has given paleontologists multiple opportunities to chuckle at themselves. The first big mistake corrected about this tiny creature was to put it the right way up, so that it walked on its legs instead of its spines. Smith and Caron further rectified the animal by putting its head on the right end of its body. Exceptionally well preserved specimens collected from Canada's Burgess Shale revealed winsome eyes and bitsy teeth, but they were at the end of the animal long thought to be its tail. The dark blobs long mistaken for Hallucigenia's head turned out to be decay fluids (marked "Df" in this image) from gut contents squished out during fossilization. That's about as insulting as a mistake gets.

Anomalocaris mouth

Year: 1911
Now appears at: Anomalocaris canadensis mouthpiece (,_Burgess_Shale.jpg)
Discussed in: Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
Although Smithsonian boss C.D. Walcott made Canada's Burgess Shale fossil locality famous in the early 20th century, he wasn't the first to dig there. A representative of the Geological Survey of Canada, Richard McConnell, beat Walcott to the site by more than 20 years. And before the Walcott family began spending summer vacations digging Burgess Shale fossils, at least one fantastically strange creature had been found there, but only partly. In the late 19th century, the site yielded what looked like shrimp. After Walcott started digging, he found fossil disks roughly resembling pineapple slices. He named them Peytoia nathorsti and compared them to modern jellyfish. As late as 1979, a Scientific American article featured an illustration of the Burgess Shale community with jellyfish disks swimming over a busy seafloor. It was an easy mistake to make, but researchers eventually pieced together the big, weird animal. In a world of sea creatures that could mostly fit in the palm of your hand, Anomalocaris and similar species were giants; some specimens from China measure 6 feet in length. On its front end, it sported shrimp-like appendages, and it had a mouth that looked like a camera aperture. So the disk-shaped fossil wasn't a jellyfish. It was a mouth.

Anomalocaris conjectural head

Year: 1902
Scientist: Henry Woodward
Artist: G.M. Woodward
Now appears in: Geological Magazine Volume 9 from Google Books
Discussed in: The History and Significance of Anomalocaris (
The fossil originally named Anomalocaris canadensis was interpreted as a shrimp, and the interpretation stuck for decades. Biologist blogger Marc Srour describes the difficulties of interpreting fragmentary remains of fossil species that look very little like anything living today: "In one day spent with one of these fossils, you can sketch at least five different interpretations with equal amounts of support." But there's struggling to interpret an enigmatic fossil from half a billion years ago, and there's fabricating convenient body parts, which is what Henry Woodward did in 1902. Woodward's caption for this figure explained that it had been drawn "from a specimen in very dark shale," and admitted the anterior was conjectural. "He magicked a head for the animal, despite none having been discovered yet," Srour remarks drily. "Standards were lower back then."
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Anomalocaris conjectural head

Year: 1928-1942
Scientist: K.L. Henriksen
Artist: Charles R. Knight
Originally published in: Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening: Khobenhavn (Henriksen's paper) and National Geographic (Knight's illustration)
Now appears in: Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
Also discussed in: Anomalocaris canadensis from the Burgess Shale Virtual Museum ( and The History and Significance of Anomalocaris (
First found in the Burgess Shale in the 19th century, Anomalocaris perplexed a couple generations of paleontologists. It looked like the back end of a shrimp, but nobody had much luck finding the front end. In 1928, Danish researcher Henriksen took a leap and attached the shrimp behind to what he thought made a reasonable head for the creature. But he had simply glued together pieces of two completely different species; the "head" was a bivalved arthropod, Tuzoia. This erroneous reconstruction endured for years. Another enduring mistake about the fossils of the Burgess Shale involved Peytoia nathorsti, identified as a jellyfish based on fossils that looked like pineapple slices. Both mistakes figured in Knight's artwork for National Geographic in 1942. The arthropod composite appears on the left, and the jellyfish float in the upper right corner. In the late 1970s, Simon Conway Morris and Derek Briggs presented what is now accepted as the real Anomalocaris: a big arthropod predator with frontal appendages (the shrimp behind) and a camera-aperture mouth (the pineapple slice/jellyfish). Considering how much these animals differed from anything known today, the early misfires in their interpretation are understandable.

Anomalocaridid reconstructions

Year: 1892-1996
Scientists: J. Whiteaves, H. Woodward, C.D. Walcott, K.L. Henriksen, H. Whittington, S. Conway Morris
Published in: "The 'Evolution' of Anomalocaris and Its Classification in the Arthropod Class Dinocarida (nov.) and Order Radiodonta (nov.)" by Desmond Collins in Journal of Paleontology
In 1996, invertebrate paleontologist Desmond Collins published this diagram of the varied (mis)interpretations of Burgess Shale anomalocaridids since the first fragments were found in the late 19th century. "Anomalocaridid" refers to Anomalocaris and similar animals, including Laggania. Over half a billion years ago, these often meter-long arthropods dined on measly worms. Imagine a scorpion the size of an apartment building and you might understand how anomalocaridids might have looked to their prey. Even Harry Whittington and Simon Conway Morris — both instrumental in correcting misconceptions about anomalocaridids — initially repeated Walcott's initial interpretation of Laggania's mouth as a free-swimming jellyfish.
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Tully monster

Year of correction: 2016
Published in: Top: Illinois State Geological Survey Geobit #5 ( Bottom: "The 'Tully Monster' is a Vertebrate" by McCoy, Saupe, Lamsdell, Tarhan, McMahon, Lidgard, Mayer, Whalen, Soriano, Finney, Vogt, Clark, Anderson, Petermann, Locatelli and Briggs in Nature
Also discussed in: Tully Monster, Illinois' Great Fossil Mystery, Solved (
In 1955, Texaco pipefitter and amateur paleontologist Francis Tully found a weird fossil in a strip mine near Morris, Illinois. Its long body was tapered at the ends and thick in the middle, like a tiny snake that had swallowed a mouse. But it didn't have a snake tail; it had tail fins. And it didn't have a snake head; it had a long, clasping, toothy proboscis. Set far back from the end of the proboscis, it sported stalk eyes, sort of like the eyes you'd see on a hammerhead shark. Tully took the fossil to the Field Museum, where it puzzled staff scientists as much as it puzzled him. Giving the fossil a nickname (Tully monster), a formal name (Tullimonstrum gregarium), and celebrity (official state fossil status, decided by the Illinois state legislature in 1989) proved relatively easy. Figuring out what the weird thing was proved much harder. As recently as 2004, the Illinois State Geological Survey described the roughly 300-million-year-old creature as an invertebrate, and provided an illustration (top).
Tully's monster was strange but not unique. Hundreds more specimens turned up over the next several decades. Some 60 years after Tully found his fossil, when Victoria McCoy and her collaborators reexamined the species, they had more than 1,200 specimens to study. They concluded that Tully monster in fact had a notochord, and belonged "on the stem lineage to lampreys." They provided a new illustration (bottom). The long-lasting misidentification is forgivable. Even reclassified as a vertebrate, the Tully monster still retains its overall shape, and overflows with weird. As one of the paper authors, Carmen Soriano, remarks, "If you put in a box a worm, a mollusk, an arthropod and a fish, and you shake, then what you have at the end is a Tully monster."


Year of correction: 2017
Published in: Top: The Fossils of the Burgess Shale by Briggs, Erwin and Collier, Bottom: "Hyoliths are Palaeozoic Lophophorates" by Moysiuk, Smith and Caron in Nature
Also discussed in: Mysterious Fossils Find Place on the Tree of Life (
Hyolith fossils have puzzled paleontologists almost from the time they were first found in the 19th century. Tiny, cone-shaped, and sporting long curved "feet," hyoliths first appeared in the fossil record some 530 million years ago, and the last of them disappeared in the Permian extinction about 250 million years ago. Bearing little resemblance to anything still living today, the fossils did sport hard shells, and some paleontologists tentatively classified them as mollusks related to modern-day clams, oysters and cephalopods. In their book about the Burgess Shale, Briggs, Erwin and Collier instead categorized the enigmatic fossils in their own phylum (body plan): Phylum Hyolitha (top image).
In January 2017, researchers affiliated with the Royal Ontario Museum published a new reconstruction based on more than 1,500 hyolith fossils, some of them with exceptional soft-tissue preservation (bottom image). Some of the fossils came from the Walcott Quarry made famous in the early 20th century by C.D. Walcott, and some came from a newer quarry, Marble Canyon. The excellent tissue preservation enabled the invertebrate paleontologists to discern the internal structure, including a U-turn gut. That and other characteristics persuaded the new team that hyoliths were in fact related to brachiopods. As any invertebrate paleontology student knows, brachiopods have a superficial resemblance to bivalve mollusks but their internal structures differ, and though some hardy brachiopod species still survive today, the group was decimated by ancient extinctions. Hyoliths defied classification for so long in part because they look so little like more familiar groups.

Fossil shell

Year: 1557
Scientist/artist: Christopher Encelius
Originally published in: De re Metallica
Now appears in: "Both Neonate and Elder: The First Fossil of 1557" by Stephen Jay Gould in Paleobiology, March 2002 issue
This little woodcut of a fossil mollusk wasn't a bad rendition, but Encelius gave it a puzzling classification. He claimed to have found an object described centuries earlier by Pliny the Elder: Chelonitis. Pliny described this object simply as "like a tortoise." How Encelius arrived at a tortoise interpretation of this shell is a mystery, but by including a picture of it — perhaps the first ever published picture of a fossil invertebrate — helped subsequent scholars identify it correctly. Conrad Gesner did just that not long afterwards.

Gold-digging ants

Year: c. 1356
Scientist: Sir John Mandeville
Originally published in: Travels
Now appears in: The Book of Fabulous Beasts by Joseph Nigg (Also discussed in Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer T. Roberts)
Described a millennium earlier by Herodotus, gold-digging ants of exotic India made an appearance in Mandeville's account. Said to be the size of dogs, the ferocious ants could only be parted from their gold by exceptional guile. Here, several ants swarm a horse. In fact, this fantastic tale might have been inspired by a mistranslation of the name of an actual animal. In the late 20th century, ethnologists and explorers discovered coarse-furred marmots in remote regions of the Himalaya. While burrowing, the rodents may dig up gold-bearing soil, and some local people even claimed to profit from the gold unearthed by the industrious animals. In the 5th century BC, Greek-speaking Herodotus knew only his native tongue, and may have interpreted the Persian word for "marmot" as "mountain ant."

Weird ant

Year: c. 1500
Originally published in: Hortus Sanitatis
Now appears in: Natural History in Shakespeare's Time by H.W. Seager
Image provided by: Biodiversity Heritage Library (some rights reserved)
Around the start of the 15th century, Sir John Mandeville's Travels included an illustration of gold-digging ants in India. Published about a century later, this woodcut doesn't show an ant engaged in such exotic activity, but it doesn't quite show an ant, either. This creature looks more like a quadruped with bird feet. To be fair, other illustrations of the time showed more realistic insects, but this illustration is hard to explain. Surely Renaissance Europeans were on familiar terms with ants.


Year: 1665
Scientist/artist: Robert Hooke
Published in: Micrographia
This is no goof. It's one of the earliest, if not the very earliest, microscopic views of an ant. The truncated legs and antenna are simply to accommodate the image to the space on the page. But when the 17th-century polymath Robert Hooke tried to observe it closely, this wily insect gave him a very bad time. He wrote, "This was a creature, more troublesom to be drawn, then any of the rest, for I could not, for a good while, think of a way to make it suffer its body to ly quiet in a natural posture; but whil'st it was alive, if its feet were fetter'd in Wax or Glew, it would so twist and wind its body, that I could not any wayes get a good view of it; and if I killed it, its body was so little, that I did often spoile the shape of it, before I could throughly view it . . ." Hooke then thought up a fiendishly clever solution: He put the ant in brandy, which left it pliant for about an hour before it "reviv'd and ran away." Robert Hooke got an ant drunk for science.
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Locust monster

Year: 1594
Artist: Nicolaas de Bruyn
Originally published as: Pictures of Flying Creatures of Many Kinds
Now appears in: Curious Beasts by Alison E. Wright
De Bruyn's engraving of "flying creatures of many kinds" included accurate illustrations of multiple insects. And it included a monster. Intended to be a locust, perhaps the kind dispatched in divine punishments, this creepy little creature is strangely accurate in some respects: The locust has six legs, multiple wings, antennae and a proboscis. The trouble, obviously, is that the six legs are fleshly legs with webbed feet, the head looks vaguely mammalian or reptilian, the antennae look like feathers, and the wings look like bird wings. De Bruyn might have followed instructions to show an animal with six legs, four wings and a proboscis without thinking about the particulars, or he might have copied an earlier image with these mistakes. British Museum curator Alison Wright remarks that this monster "offers particular insight into the hazards of copying."
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Giant grabby crab

Year: 1887
Author: James W. Buel
Originally published in: Sea and Land: An Illustrated History of the Wonderful and Curious Things of Nature Existing Before and Since the Deluge
Now appears at: Monsters in Nature: Frightful Tales from the 19th Century (
Familiar insects like ladybugs and locusts were better understood in the 19th century than they had been in the 16th, but the occasional myth persisted. Buel's book covered animals long extent (before the deluge) and those that travelers might still encounter. This picture, based on a verbal account from an unnamed gentleman, shows a "robber-crab, peculiar to the Samoan Islands" lifting a goat off the ground, which is horrifying. In fact, robber crabs, also known as coconut crabs, do inhabit islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The arthropods are big enough to sport exoskeletons weighing several pounds, and they are known for their tenacious grip. But they're shaped differently than this picture indicates, and they probably can't lift goats. Except possibly baby pygmy goats.

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