Goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni)

Close-up of a goblin shark specimen.

Mitsukurina owstoni Jordan, 1898 by photographer Julian Finn is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Ten animals named after mythological creatures

Some animals have inspired mythical creatures, such as the stories of manatees mistaken for mermaids by early sailors. Other animals have looks or behaviours that wouldn't appear out of place in myths and legends.  

From the goblin shark to a tiny wasp named after a creature in Harry Potter, discover the animals that take their names from folklore or fiction. 

A Harpy eagle on a branch

1. Harpy eagle

The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) gets its name from the harpies of Greek mythology. The harpy was described as a wind spirit with the body of an eagle and the head of a woman. They carried the dead to Hades, Lord of the Underworld. The harpy eagle is one of the biggest species of eagle and like other birds of prey the female is larger than the male. They have short wings to help them navigate their dense forested surroundings.

Harpy eagles live in the rainforests of Central and South America. They mostly eat tree-dwelling mammals such as sloths, monkeys and opossums and reptiles like iguanas. They also prey on other birds such as parrots. Harpy eagles can live for 25-35 years. They mate for life and a pair produces a chick every two to four years. The species is currently at risk due to habitat loss from logging.


A table mountain ghost frog in its habitat.

2. Table Mountain ghost frog

While the ghost frog (Heleophryne rosei) gets its name from the Skeleton Gorge where it was first recorded, it could also apply to this species' elusive nature.

Found only on the slopes of Table Mountain in South Africa and in an area of just four square kilometres, its colouring perfectly matches the forest floor making them tough to spot. This helps them to evade predators.

The ghost frog has few close relatives, with just seven species in its family, Heleophrynidae. The common ancestor of ghost frogs diverged from the ancestor of other living frogs in the Early Cretaceous period, about 70 million years before Tyrannosaurus existed.

Ghost frogs are adapted to live in mountain streams. Their tadpoles use suction cup-like mouths to climb up wet vertical rocks. Water contamination, frequent forest fires and human-made construction of water storage reservoirs on the mountain have affected the frog's habitat, and they are currently a conservation priority.

A Dracula parrot on a branch

3. Dracula parrot

Pesquet's parrot (Psittrichas fulgidus) is also known as the vulturine or Dracula parrot due to its black and red plumage, and odd vulture-like appearance. It is the only species in its genus and is only found in the rainforests of New Guinea. Despite their gothic name, the Dracula parrot lives on a diet of figs which may be the reason for its bald face and neck, as the lack of feathers stop its face becoming sticky and matted from fig juice. Its plumage and specific diet mean the Dracula parrot is now classed as a vulnerable species - a mix of habitat loss and poaching means there are now just 21,000 pairs in the wild.

The parrot has a distinctive piercing scream which can be heard from some distance away.

A ghost bat on a black background

4. Ghost bat

The ghost bat (Macroderma gigas), also known as the Australian false vampire bat, is native to Australia. It probably gets its spooky common name from its pale grey or light brown fur with some populations tending to be almost white which makes it appear ghostly at night. 

Due to their large size and sharp teeth, false vampire bats were assumed to drink blood, however they actually eat large insects, lizards, birds, rodents and even other bats. They are the only species of carnivorous bat in Australia. 

Much of the prey is captured on the ground. Ghost bats drop on animals from above, enveloping them with their flight membranes, and killing them with bites about the head and neck. Like many other bats species, they use echolocation to find their way around. But in addition to their large ears and nose leaf, they also have large eyes to help them find prey.

Ghost bats have long wings and no tail. They can be up to 13 centimetres in length and have a wingspan of up to 50 centimetres when stretched.  

A goblin spider on a leaf

5. Goblin spider

Oonopidae, or the goblin spider family, has over 1,600 species worldwide. This group of tiny spiders measures just one to three millimetres in length. Nine species were recently discovered in Sri Lanka, with six of them now taking their names from the goblins of Enid Blyton's books. Silhouettella snippySilhouettella tiggyCavisternum bomIschnothyreus chippyPelicinus snooky, and Pelicinus tumpy all take their names from characters like Snooky from The Firework Goblinsbor Bom and Tumpy from The Goblin Looking Glass. Many of these new species seem to live in just a few spots and may all be critically endangered.

Goblin spiders usually have six eyes - although four, two and eyeless cave-dwelling species have also been discovered. They are not often seen by humans as they are so tiny and generally live in leaf litter or under rocks.

Model of a dementor wasp

6. Dementor wasp    

Named after the mythical Harry Potter creature that sucks out human souls, the Dementor wasp (Ampulex dementor) turns its prey into a zombie before eating it alive. Dementor wasps will inject a cockroach with venom that allows them to move, but with no free will, before dragging it to a safe place to eat. They will also use the body of the cockroach as a safe place to incubate its young.

Its black and red markings are shared with a few other species but they have smaller cuticle punctures. The Dementor wasp can only be found in Thailand. 

7. Vampire squirrel

The vampire squirrel (Rheithrosciurus macrotis) is remarkable in several aspects, but has recently become famous for two things: being reported as the mammal with the largest tail to body size ratio and according to local hunters in northern Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) for its ability to disembowel deer.

The vampire squirrel, also known as the tufted ground squirrel, has only been found in the primary forests of Borneo. According to a Dayak hunters, it jumps onto deer from a low branch before using its sharp teeth to bite their jugular, and then lets the deer bleed to death. Once the deer is dead and they eat only their organs. While this behaviour has never been proven, locals believe that if they find a dead deer with only the gut removed, it is a sign of a squirrel attack.

Scientists who study them report that their diet is mostly fruits, canarium nuts and seeds. Sightings of this species are very rare and it has only recently been caught on film.

The head and body length of a vampire squirrel can be about 35 centimetres long, with a tail 30% larger than its body. In addition to its fluffy tail, it also has very hairy ears. It is not clear why the vampire squirrel has so much tail, but one theory suggests that it may confuse predators, such as clouded leopards, preventing them from grabbing hold of the body of the squirrel when they attack.

Blue unicornfish in ocean

8. Blue unicornfish

Bluespine unicornfish (Naso unicornis) is found in the tropical Indo-Pacific region. There are characterised by the sharp forward-facing spines which poke out from the side of their tail shaft and a long spiky front horn which extends from their forehead and resembles a unicorn horn. Unicornfish are not born with this horn, instead it grows with the fish.

They are herbivorous, surviving mostly on macroalgae particularly Sargassum, Pocockiella, and Dictoya. Their closely packed together teeth act as a scraper with a serrated edge to help strip leaves and chunks off the seaweed. Usually they are brown, grey or blue-grey but some species can change to brighter colours during courtship rituals.

Dracula ant specimen

9. Dracula ant

Dracula ants (Mystrium camillae) have earned their spooky name due to their habit of drinking the blood of their own young, but that's not the only interesting thing about their jaws. The Dracula ant has the fastest strike of any creature in the animal kingdom, moving at 5,000 times faster than the blink of an eye and beating the previous record three times over.

They do this by pressing their jaws so hard together that they bend, they then release the energy in their jaws like a spring, with maximum velocity of about 322 kilometres per hour. Their jaws help them to hunt centipedes, immobilising their prey before it can fight back with a venomous bite.

Goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni)

10. Goblin shark

The goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni) is one of the ocean's oddest-looking creatures. They have a long, flattened snout, exposed teeth and a moveable mouth that can shoot forward to seize prey.

This shark can be found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, but is mainly found near the Japanese coast. Its scientific name 'owstoni' was used in honour of Alan Owston, an English collector of Asian wildlife. The goblin part of its name comes from its similarity to a long-nosed, red-faced tengu from Japanese folklore. Fishermen began to refer to the shark as tengu-zame, which translates directly into English as goblin shark.

Goblin sharks are found in very deep water, normally swimming at depths of 274-1,310 metres. They can get very big, with the largest recorded at 3.8-metres long and weighing 210 kilogrammes but have never been known to attack humans.

Until 1976, it was believed that goblin sharks were grey. However, their skin is translucent and lacks pigment, and the faint trace of their bloodstream that can be seen gives them a pink tint. After death, they have a brown or grey tint.