The world of biological hoaxes is a great one. Some of them are pranks, some are there to make money, and some are just to laugh at those who don’t know any better. There’s something about slapping together of a handful of different animals and convincing tourists that it’s a real thing that exists across countries the world over. These 15 examples are the oddest, funniest, best known, and just generally craziest biological hoaxes ever seen.
15. Bare-fronted Hoodwink
Ornithologists aren’t exactly known as the funniest people on the planet. Something about spending hours cramped in the mud and dirt looking for tiny birds seems rather pointless and soul crushing to me, but what do I know, I write on the internet for a living. The Bare-fronted Hoodwink is a rare moment of humor from bird hunters — it’s the official name of the bird that got away. Aka Dissimulatrix spuria, it’s major defining feature is that it’s always spotted flying away, and is always “almost seen” or “almost captured”. The bird was even displayed at the Royal Scottish Museum at Edinburgh, with blurry photos and a body made of bits of other birds.
14. Duck Billed Platypus
Wait, those things are real? You honestly expect me to believe that there’s a creature with the bill of a duck, tail of a beaver, flippers of an otter, venomous claws and is a mammal that lays eggs? While we widely acknowledge that the Platypus is real these days, for years it was derided as a hoax, because it looks and sounds so much like bits of other animals strapped together to fool gullible Europeans, like a number of these animals actually were. The Platypus is real, but earns its place as a hoax because so many people thought it was.
13. Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus
Are you honestly telling me that while some fish are totally capable of living outside of the water, and climbing trees, it’s beyond possible to you that an octopus might be able to? Bah, where’s your sense of adventure? The Tree Octopus hoax was started in 1998, and has taken a life of its own as a sort of litmus test of people who will believe anything. It’s usually busted out during internet literacy classes, and due to the way the titular website is laid out, fact is woven closely with fiction, leading to a many people easily falling for the claims that these arboreal cephalapods are real. If only…if only.
12. Pickled Dragon
The story of the pickled dragon is an excellent example of a meta-hoax — no one claimed that it was really a dragon, but they hoaxed people with it anyway. The dragon was said to be found in a British man’s garage in 2003, and he claimed that a German biologist tried to gift it to the Natural History Museum in the 19th century in order to make them look like fools. The media totally bought the story — after all, it’s a tale of scientists punking each other, what’s not to love? What actually happened is that the preserving jar was custom made, and the dragon built by one of the model-makers behind the BBC’s “Walking With Dinosaurs”. The whole exercise was done to advertise the discoverer’s subsequently well selling novel.
11. Winged Cats
Cats with wings seem to be a reoccuring phenomenon, one relatively well described around the world. Every decade or so another story will pop up of a cat discovered with wings. Sorry folks, there aren’t any real flying cats. The majority of times, the “wings” are just horribly matted fur from a feral long-haired cat. Slightly more legit are weird flaps of skin or vestigal/mutated limbs — genetic disorders that hit all animals. It’s just that when they happen on the back of a cat, they tend to look wing-like, and people jump to conclusions. In the last decade, there have been at least three news reports of the critters, but always in a backwoods town in a non-English speaking country, making the details very hard to come by.
10. Fur-Bearing Trout
The Fur-bearing Trout is a staple of North American tall tales and legends, often used to hornswaddle cityslickers and greenhorns alike. The story goes that the origin of the myth of the furry fish goes back to a 17th centure Scot who came to America, and in a letter back to his family spoke of the plentiful “furried animals and fish”. When the relatives asked for proof of a furry fish, he mocked one up to mess with them. The stories been around in one form or another since then, and furry fish are a staple of small town pranksters and jokers across all of North America.
9. Bigfoot Carcass
In 2008, a couple of guys claimed to have found the carcass of a bigfoot, causing a media frenzy as they said they were having it forensically examined to prove its realness. Matthew Whitton and Rick Dyer of Georgia claimed they’d seen other similar critters around the corpse, and that the 500-pound beast was totally legit. Of course, they formed an LLC, and claimed total rights to all photographs and videos of the carcass. Capitalism and hoaxes, two great tastes that taste great together. They later admitted it was a rubber suit in a box, but that didn’t stop them from getting a huge amount of coverage.
Oh, those wacky Australians! Given how batshit bizarre most of their wildlife already is, I wouldn’t be surprised at anything they threw at me. Can you really say that a thing that looks like a wombat with horns is any weirder than a platypus or an echidna? Hell, even a kangaroo? Alas, the Gunni isn’t real, and traces its origins to a fake animal set up in visitor’s center in Marysville near Melbourne, where a cheeky local ranger created the animal, and wrote a detailed backstory about where it had been spotted in the past and by whom. It’s Australia, so why wouldn’t it be believable that a horned mammal was hiding in the forests?
7. Wild Haggis
Proving yet again just how gullible American tourists are, we have the wild haggis. When people ask what a haggis is made of, rather than telling them that it’s a sheep’s internal organs and some grain cooked in its own stomach for hours at a time, they just tell the gullible tourists that it’s from a small fuzzy thing that scutters around the Scottish Highlands, just waiting to be caught and turned into the Scottish national dish. In one survey, ? of American tourists to Scotland believed that the wild haggis was a real thing.
And so we enter the world of the mutant bunny rabbits, which for some reason appear on this list more than any other origin animal. The jackalope is perhaps the most famous, an American tale of a rabbit with the horns of an antelope, and sometimes the rear of a pheasant. The jackalope is so well known now that almost no-one things it’s real, but it’s still a beloved hoax and one that remains a major part of the American story. What’s awesome is that it might have its origins in something vaguely resembling truth. Rabbits can be infected by the Shope papilloma virus, the rabbit version of HPV, which causes hornlike tumors to sprout over their head (see below) which could easily have been the basis for the idea of rabbits with horns.
The skvader is the Swedish answer to the jackalope — though much more recent. It’s only been around since 1918, when a taxidermist stitched together the forequarters and hindlegs of a hare and the back, wings and tail of a female wood grouse. Where the jackalope is a rabbit with horns, this is a rabbit with wings. The whole thing sprung from a man’s story of shooting such an animal, a critter later painted for him as a joke by his housekeeper’s nephew. The painting ended up in a museum, who decided to have a taxidermist reconstruct it, and it’s been a popular exhibit ever since. In modern Swedish, the word skvader has come to mean a bad compromise, which seems fitting.
If you combined the skvader and jackalope you might get close to the wolpertinger, said to inhabit the alpine forests of Bavaria. It’s usually described as having wings, antlers, tails and fangs on the body of a small mammal, usually a rabbit or squirrel. A wonderful hodgepodge of large animal parts, thrown onto the body of a small fuzzy creature. The Wolpertinger gained some recent fame from appearing as a vanity pet in World of Warcraft, where it can usually only be seen by your party members, but drunk other players will be able to glimpse it too.
3. Fiji Mermaid
The Fiji Mermaid was a famous hoax animal, put on display originally by that master of grifting, PT Barnum. The exhibit was so successful other similar showmen picked it up, including Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The creepy looking creature was a nightmare version of the beautiful myths, not a half naked woman who lives under the water, but a gnarled, terrifying looking thing. All it actually was was half a monkey and half a fish stitched together, and then covered with paper-mache for additional details.
2. Drop Bear
Ask any Australian what the most deadly animal is on their generally poisonous island home, and they won’t say the snakes, the spiders, the jellyfish, the crocodiles, or the sharks. Nope, they’ll tell you about the drop bear — cousin to the koala, but feasts on meat rather than leaves. They leap down from trees, attacking your head, before devouring you. They don’t exist, but that hasn’t stopped the Australians from convincing wave after wave of tourists that the only way to stop them is to put vegemite behind your ears. Given how deadly everything else in Australia is, I can see how they would be convinced.
1. Hotheaded Naked Ice Borer
Why does this one win? Because the hotheaded naked ice borer was presented in an issue of the reputable science and nature magazine Discover. Those easily fooled — which in 1995 meant 12-year old me — didn’t cotton on to the fact that it was the April edition of the magazine, and hence a devastatingly well written April Fools’ prank. They were creatures that lived under the ice of the Antarctic, flushing blood to their bony headplates to melt the ice around them to create warrens of tunnels. To hunt, they would swarm beneath large penguins, melting the ice until it collapsed, and devouring their prey. The hoax was so successful that zoos started calling Discover magazine asking how they could obtain one for their exhibits, and a number of magazines reported the story as true. You can still read the original report online.