Ice ice baby

By GREG COOK  |  January 6, 2009

A highlight is the hideous desiccated little body of the Feejee Mermaid — perhaps 19th-century huckster P.T. Barnum's original fake mermaid stitched together from the remains of a fish and a monkey. It comes from Harvard's collection — evidence that the boundaries between museum fact and fiction are still relatively new.

Many of the mythic sea creatures date from the Western "Age of Exploration," 1600 to 1800, when sailors in unfamiliar waters mistook squids, whales, basking sharks, and clots of seaweed for sea serpents and other fantastic beasts. But there are also wondrous recent inventions, like plastic action figures depicting the fanged-vampire Chupacabra critter originating in the tales of farmers in Puerto Rico about 20 years ago. We crave these miraculous mysteries, so we continue to invent new ones as fast as science can endeavor to explain the old ones away.

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