Paleontology isn't always an exact science. We know, we know -- that's generally not the kind of thing you want a whole field of science to say, but when all you have to work with are a bunch of bones sticking out of the ground, it can be easy to get things wrong. And sometimes they get things really wrong, giving us a view of the past that more closely resembles the fever dreams of a Muppet designer than actual animals. For example ...
5Flesh-Eating Terror Elephants
Despite its awesomely death metal name, there's nothing particularly scary about a mastodon ... unless you lived in the 1700s, when it was assumed that mastodons had an insatiable hunger for human flesh. See, unlike vegetarian elephants and mammoths, whose teeth are flat so they can mash up soft plant matter, mastodon teeth were terrifying jagged saw blades bigger than a man's hand:
Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post/Getty Images
"This was nothing compared to the size of what our ancestors crapped upon seeing one."
A good number of scientists took one passing look at those chompers and assumed that they were ideal for grinding flesh and crushing bone, and nothing else. With no other evidence to go on, early paleontologists straight up panicked and let their imaginations run amok. This resulted in increasingly hyperbolic claims, like that mastodons had claws and the agility of a tiger and ruled the American continents with unparalleled ferocity. According to one anonymous author:
"Forests were laid waste at a meal, the groans of expiring animals were everywhere heard; and whole villages, inhabited by men, were destroyed in a moment."
It's amazing that guy knew these things hated humanity just by looking at a bone! Sounds like somebody has a bright future writing for Cracked.
Union County Parks Dept.
Especially if he just assumed this was a mastodon's fossilized terror dong.
Colonial Americans had an ulterior motive for believing in the flesh-eating mastodon. Unlike the wild continents of Africa and Asia, North America didn't really have any impressively dangerous animals like lions or rhinos. It soon became kind of a joke for the rest of the naturalist world. So the discovery of the mastodon became a source of nationalist pride for the early United States -- a monster so vicious and ferocious that even the rules of basic biology couldn't contain its bloodlust. Thomas Jefferson even assigned Lewis and Clark a secondary mission objective: to find evidence of living mastodons pillaging native villages in the wild uncharted West.
In the meantime, a mastodon skeleton featured in the Philadelphia Museum was altered to look tougher, with its tusks turned downward like a saber-toothed tiger:
Meanwhile, other researchers came up with even more creative theories:
Alexander Anderson, via Common-Place.org
"What big eyes you have."
"THE BETTER TO STAB YOU WITH."
Of course, today's scientists have a better theory about why the mastodon's teeth look like something out of a grinding mill -- they were for grinding. Grinding up branches and tough vegetable matter. As for the elusive claws, they never found any evidence for that either, but hopefully that won't stop them from making a SyFy original movie out of it.
4The Flying Stegosaurus
Ever since the stegosaurus was first discovered in 1877, scientists have had a hard time figuring out exactly how those trademark plates were arranged on its body (or for that matter, how a stegosaurus filled out a trademark application). At first it was thought that they lay flat on the animal's back, covering its vulnerable flanks like a suit of armor:
Frank Bond, via Wikipedia
No evidence suggested that they were covered in spikes, but paleontologists added them
when they were determined to be totally badass.
That shingled-roof formation is actually what gave the stegosaurus its name, and all things considered, it was a fairly reasonable assumption to make. Hell, we have tiny versions of that animal around now. It wasn't until years later that scientists started standing the plates upright, eventually shuffling them around to the version we recognize today.
But if the plates weren't armor, it raised a whole new question: What exactly did these plates do? Were they used for protection? Temperature control? Could they fold those suckers down like wings and take off like an airplane? Haha, that would be ridic-
"Dude, you forgot to add the totally bitchin' flames decals. I need this to be accurate."
Citing just a little less than zero scientific research to back up his claim, one "Dr. W. H. Ballou" wrote an article in the Ogden Standard-Examiner describing how stegosaurus plates could fold down at will, creating "gliding surfaces immeasurably like those of the planes of to-day." That's right: All it took for a 5-ton behemoth to leap from a cliff and sail gracefully across the Jurassic skies were a series of miniscule back-plates and giant dinosaur balls. To push this madness even further, Ballou asserted that the stegosaurus was a direct ancestor of modern birds (it wasn't, of course) and its plates were actually where wings came from.
As brain-clubbingly stupid as the idea was, it did find some purchase in pop culture. Ballou's Flying Stego-Circus appears to have inspired a scene in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan at the Earth's Core, where a gliding stegosaurus swoops down from the cliffs to terrorize an explorer, who proceeds to leap off the mountainside with a pair of six-guns and blow the hell out of its tiny brain in a free-falling battle of the ages.
Holy shit! Sounds like we all have some reading to do.