The Peculiar Animal That Scientists Once Thought Was Actually An Elaborate Hoax

In 1788, British officers traveled across the sea to Australia, where they were establishing a new colony for exiled British criminals. While surveying the land, they spotted a creature that, given their experience with animals, shouldn’t have existed.

With a body like a beaver, a bill like a duck, and venomous spurs on its males’ flippers that remind us of those on shrews, the animal bore a perplexing mix of features that, for a period of time, defied explanation. Upon closer inspection, however, scientists realized the animal was very real — and it could actually hold the answer to a centuries-old question.

When Colonel David Collins, a member of the team surveying Australia, saw the animal, he froze. In his notes, he wrote that he’d happened upon an “amphibious animal, of the mole species,” and included a hand-drawn image.

Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive

The governor of the new colony, Captain John Hunter, requested that this animal be captured so as to send its pelt back to England for study, and in 1798 England received their unusual package. But scientists back home didn’t believe it was real.

UK Natural History Museum

At first, everyone who saw the skin wrote it off as a hoax. Some thought it was a joke from Asian taxidermists; others thought a duck bill had been sewn onto beaver skin. They even cut into the dried pelt with scissors to look for stitches.

Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In light of the culture at the time, their skepticism is understandable. Hoax animals were common back then; taxidermies were often designed from various parts of other animals and toured around as circus sideshow attractions.

Enrique Gomez De Molina

For instance, PT Barnum — of Barnum and Bailey fame — had what he called a Fiji Mermaid on display. According to publicity and hot tips he leaked to the press, it was a mummified mermaid caught in the South Pacific, but it was really made of fish, wood, and monkey parts.

And Albert Koch, who discovered a giant cache of fossilized American mastodon bones, reconstructed one twice the size of normal, dubbing it the never-before-discovered Missouri Leviathan and shipping it on tours around the world.

UK Natural History Museum

However, more evidence came to light, and the public began to realize that the unusual duck-billed creature was real. During an expedition to Australia between 1801 and 1803, scientists were able to illustrate the creatures in their natural habitat and corroborate the taxidermy from back home.

Ferdinand Lucas Bauer

The first person — besides the expedition members — to consider the creature a real animal was George Shaw. He was the natural history collections keeper at the British Museum, now the Natural History Museum, and he called the mammal Platypus anatinus, or “flat-footed duck.”

Wikimedia Commons

However, unbeknownst to Shaw, there was already a species of beetle with the genus name Platypus. Four years later, another scientist named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published an updated dossier on the creature and called it Ornithorhynchus paradoxus — or “paradoxical bird-snout.”

Bindi Irwin / Facebook

Later on, that taxonomical classification would further morph into the present-day Ornithorhynchus anatinus, which means something like “duck-like bird-snout,” but Shaw’s original name had stuck, and everybody just called the thing a darn platypus.

New York Times

Despite all the changes to its name, giving the platypus this moniker turned out to be the easy part. Scientists were baffled about what the animal actually was, given that it had characteristics of a mammal, bird, and reptile.

For reference, mammals give birth to live offspring and feed them milk. They also have warm blood, like birds — but birds lay eggs. Reptiles, on the third hand, lay eggs, but are cold-blooded.

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The trouble with classifying platypuses at first was the fact that in Europe, where all the classifying scientists lived, there were no live platypuses. Scientists only had partial carcasses and pelts to study.

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However, when these biologists were able to get their hands on a live platypus, they decided it couldn’t neatly fit into any of the preexisting orders of animals, so they created a new one entirely.

VEWH

They called it the Monotremata order, a subcategory of the mammal class. Members of Monotremata, called monotremes, include the platypus and the echidna, and they are egg-laying mammals that produce milk for their babies once they hatch.

Wikimedia Commons

Because of the strange way that the platypus’s reproductive characteristics overlap with those of other animal classes, scientists wonder if the animal might be a clue to an evolutionary bridge between mammals and reptiles.

Peter Clark

After all, those three classes of animals that the platypus was thought to be part of — mammals, birds, and reptiles — all share a common ancestor, called the amniote, which existed many eons ago in the development chain.

Pixabay

Though they aren’t closely related to reptiles and birds, monotremes are thought to predate humans, and likely separated from placental mammals early on, maintaining their amniote characteristics.

Still, it’s hard to believe that, long before beloved American cartoon characters Phineas and Ferb built the perfect 104-day summer vacation alongside their pet and spy-genius companion, Perry the Platypus, scientists had one heck of a time figuring out just what a platypus actually was.

Disney XD

Whatever the case may be, we’re glad the platypus didn’t turn out to be a hoax those two hundred years ago. Still, it wouldn’t be a total shocker to look back and see these animals are just beavers with bills sewed on. Hoaxes have happened before.

Zoos Victoria / YouTube

For instance, when experts came across the Hy-yi-yi island chain, it was a quiet, peaceful place, almost entirely isolated from the outside world. This allowed the wildlife there to evolve is bizarre ways, developing peculiar traits. The spot was prime for a little shenanigans.

But in the 1950s, nuclear tests near the islands went awry, destroying everything and everyone on the islands — including zoologist Harald Stümpke. The only thing was, the tragedy was all an elaborate sham. Neither the islands, nor the wildlife, nor the zoologist ever actually existed.

See, Harald Stümpke was actually just a pseudonym used by Gerolf Steiner, a German zoologist. Steiner had a relatively unremarkable career studying cockroaches — until World War II. That’s when he discovered a hidden talent.

Steiner wasn’t just skilled at studying vermin, he was also a gifted artist. So during the war, he worked as an illustrator. Soon he realized he could utilize this skill elsewhere.

Back in 1945, Germany was low on food. So when one of his students of his offered to share some rations with him, Steiner searched for a way to return the favor. He decided to illustrate something for him.

Basing the illustration off a creature mentioned in a poem by Christian Morgenstern, Steiner drew his student a small mouse with a large snout that it bounced on. And so, the “snouter” was born.

Steiner loved the snouter so much that he even gave it its own zoological name: rhinogradentia. Soon he was bringing them up in lectures and writing extensively about the fictitious mouse under the pen name Harald Stümpke. Things quickly got out of hand.

This wasn’t a joke to him; Steiner was dedicated to making the fictitious world of the rhinogrades seem realistic. He always spoke about the rodents as if they really, truly existed — which landed him in some trouble.

What’s In John’s Freezer

“Together, it created an interlocking network of citations, tying back, eventually, to the fictitious biological station on the Hy-yi-yi,” wrote Joe Cain. “This was presented with an air of cold seriousness and professionalism.” But the ruse kept escalating.

Steiner documented a vast (and fictitious) world for the snouters. According to him, they were discovered on an island chain called Hy-yi-yi in 1941 by a shipwrecked Swede named Einar Pettersson-Skämtkvist (who was also fictitious).

Steiner wrote that Pettersson-Skämtkvist discovered 15 different species of nose-bouncing rodents on the islands. From there he divided the species into smaller subcategories based on how many snouts each had. And these mice were weird.

Tokiwa Takeshi

There were snouters that bounced along on one nose, snouters that walked on four leg-like noses, tall snouters, small snouters — it was practically a Dr. Seuss book! Some were so unbelievable that people desperately wanted them to be true.

Like the Snuffling Sniffler, zoologically known as the Emunctator sorbens. This snouter supposedly hunted by releasing long threads from its enormous nose that it would use to trap flies and other bugs. And that’s not even the weirdest.

Perhaps the strangest of Steiner’s creations was the Earwig, Otopteryx volitans. This bird-like rodent would use its propeller-shaped nose to fly as it flapped its humongous ears like wings. Move over, Dumbo! But sadly, the islands of Hy-yi-yi were in for a (fictitious) disaster.

According to Steiner, Hy-yi-yi was destroyed in a nuclear test performed by the United States, killing all the researchers on the island — as well as the snouters. Luckily, Steiner said, Pettersson-Skämtkvist had mailed him his journals before the fateful disaster.

Steiner published his work on the snouters in 1961 under his pseudonym but gave no indication that the research was entirely fictional. It wasn’t until 1962 that a major magazine finally called him out but by then, people were loving the snouters.

The ruse kept expanding across the world as more people learned about the fictitious rodents. Famous paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, who was in on the joke, even published a serious review in a legitimate French scientific journal, Science.

As the book’s popularity mushroomed, it was translated in several languages including Japanese, Italian, French, and English. The English translation was the first to coin the term “snouters,” the name that has stuck to this day.

Tokiwa Takeshi

The hoax continued to grip the scientific community like a snouter grasping a fly with its nose-threads. Natural History and the New York Times both published stories without so much as a hint that it was all fake.

That’s when things really started to explode. In 2012, France’s Museum of Natural History hosted an exhibit about the snouters with taxidermied specimen and all. But they also had a startling “discovery.”

Not only were they unveiling lifelike models of the extinct-but-also-fake rodents, they had also discovered a new species that devoured wood with its drill-like snout. But they were careful about when to debut the exhibit — it opened on April Fool’s Day.

Steiner’s legacy lives on even today. The snouters hold such a special place in many scientists’ hearts that they still name new species after his pseudonym to this day! But have no fear — these newly discovered animals aren’t just a museum’s idea of a prank… we think.

Hyorhinomys stuempkei is a newly discovered rat in Indonesia with a long teeth and a huge nose, so it makes sense that they’d name it after Steiner’s pen name! Meanwhile, south of the Equator, experts were investigating an animal that seemed….well, made up.

On the coast of the Arctic Circle lies Victoria Island, where the temperature is often at excruciating levels below zero degrees Fahrenheit. And below those layers of ice, the Arctic is hiding some secrets.

David Kuptana is one of 2,000 people who live on Victoria Island, the eighth largest island on Earth. Few people reside there considering the island’s grand size (approximately the size of Idaho).

Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

David grew up in the small coastal district of Ulukhaktok, home to only a few hundred people. While Ulukhaktok is known for its artistic musk ox-horn carvings, it’s not exactly known for its farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

Science 101

Up north many Inuits live off of the land, rather than paying lofty prices for few-and-far-between groceries. This is where the majestic polar bears come into play.

WallpapersCraft

As the temperature heats up, polar bears spend more time on land, which gives the Inuit people the opportunity to hunt them. They resourcefully use their meat for food and their fur for pants and boots. These white, fluffy bears have long been a sacred part of their culture.

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As extinction started to creep up closer and closer on the polar bears, laws concerning hunting changed; however, hunting is still legal for Alaskan natives, and for Canada as a whole. The Ulukhaktok community is granted about a dozen polar bear hunting tags annually.

Kim Hunter

But things got weird for David Kuptana and his wife while on a seemingly regular and legal hunting expedition. They drove snowmobiles across the vast ice to a cozy island cabin as per usual but wound up encountering something unusual.

They were appalled to find this cabin was also plundered by a bear. Among the damage, they found a mattress dragged out onto the ice and a broken window. David was perplexed, as he had never seen a polar bear behave like this.

Popular Science

They were appalled to find this cabin was also plundered by a bear. Among the damage, they found a mattress dragged out onto the ice and a broken window. David was perplexed, as he had never seen a polar bear behave like this.

Breitbart

The Kuptanas traveled to a total of six cabins and found them all wrecked. But at the sixth cabin, they got a big surprise: they caught the bear in the act! While it wreaked havoc, they observed the creature, having noticed that something about it was a bit… off.

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The meddlesome beast had blonde fur with sable paws and eyes. It looked nothing like a polar bear. The spooked bear attempted an escape, but David was on the move, having chased it down on his snowmobile. David thought it was a grizzly bear, but his guess was only partially accurate.

Because David was frightened of the bear’s erratic behavior, he killed it. He brought the bear, who still mystified him, to a local government officer who was just as puzzled.

Science 101

But the officer had a hunch as to what this bear-thing was. He figured it was some sort of hybrid, but to find out for sure, the officer sent the bear’s DNA to a lab to be tested. They anxiously waited on the DNA results, but this was no episode of Maury.

The Japan Times

The tests showed that years prior to David’s discovery, 20 of these animals were born in captivity. But because these particular hybrid animals and their parents had been kept apart from the wild, where did David’s blonde bear originate from?

ScienceNordic

Well, in 2006, a hunter found the first documented hybrid bear on Banks Island, Northern Territories, Canada, which is a bit northwest of where David found his hybrid in 2010. While those bears were never found to be particularly exciting or noteworthy to scientists, things changed in 2016.

In 2016, a hunter discovered the third wild hybrid bear of its kind in Arviat, Canada. By this point, scientists had hypothesized that pesky climate change was the culprit behind bear interbreeding, as warming climates caused the Arctic ice to melt, which ain’t good for the polar bears.

Twitter

They figured that otherwise, polar bears wouldn’t dream of mating with a foreign species. The mix of polar and grizzly characteristics would most likely create a hybrid bear that would be better equipped for warmer temperatures. The hybrid bear, appropriately named a pizzly bear, possessed the best of both worlds! Right?

Science 101

Yeah, more like the worst of both worlds. Unfortunately, the mix of grizzly and polar bear traits didn’t help the pizzly bear (also known as the grolar bear, or nanulak) adapt to any environment. They don’t excel on ice or land, making the climate change theory a flop.

Giphy

When the DNA test results were in, it was revealed that the Ulukhaktok pizzly was a unique blend. Its mother was exactly 50% grizzly and 50% polar, while its father was a pure grizzly. This confirmed that the pizzly bears are in fact fertile mammalians.

Animalogic

But in 2017, a group of scientists disclosed that, based on DNA and genetic testing, these wild pizzly bears all come from one family tree, trailing back to a single female polar bear, known as Bear 10960. She had mated with two different grizzly bears, one of which she mated with twice. So what was her real motive behind interbreeding?

The Contemplative Mammoth

While it could have been that there were no male polar bears nearby, or that a male grizzly picked up her scent and proceeded to follow her, but, believe it or not, it’s possible that Bear 10960 simply had a thang for grizzlies, considering she mated with grizzlies three times. Cue the Barry White mixtape.

Chronicles of the Nerds

Buckle your seat belts, folks, because things get crazier. Scientists concluded that Bear 10960’s daughter (who is a pizzly) ended up mating with her mother’s two former grizzly bear partners! So how on earth does this relate back to David Kuptana’s pizzly finding?

A Travel Blog

Well, that wild pizzly found in Ulukhaktok is the grandchild of the infamous Bear 10960. To be clear, David Kuptana’s pizzly bear discovery was produced from a long line of incest. We know, this is quite the tale.

We still don’t know a ton about the reason behind bear interbreeding, especially seeing that science confirmed polar bears and grizzlies have been mating for thousands of years! In conclusion, nature is weird, and sometimes answers just aren’t set in stone. Heck, these guys aren’t even the weirdest wild hybrids around…

yousense.info

1. Zorse: This equestrian beauty is what you get when you mix a zebra and a horse. They were first bred in the nineteenth century by Charles Darwin, but nowadays, they’re extremely rare because they’re either sterile or infertile.

2. Wholphin: This rare hybrid is a mix between a killer whale and a bottlenose dolphin. They breed naturally and exist in the wild, but you don’t have to go for a swim to find them — there’s one living at Sea Life Park in Hawaii.

emorlie / Instagram

3. Beefalo: These grazing animals are the offspring of American buffaloes and domestic cattle. The first accidental crossing of these species occurred about 300 years ago, but scientists deliberately engineered the specimen to help with the beef production industry in 1880.

Mark Spearman / Flickr

4. Liger: Anyone who’s seen the film Napoleon Dynamite knows this was Napoleon’s favorite animal, but it’s also one of the world’s most popular hybrids, too. A male lion and female tiger make up this unique beauty.

5. Grolar bear: If you’ve ever wondered what the offspring of a grizzly bear and a polar bear looks like, check out grolar bears. Most of the mating happens in the wild, but it’s rare — both species tend to avoid each other.

6. Zonkey: This cute little four-legged fella is the cross between a zebra and a donkey. While he may be all donkey from the torso up, those striped legs scream zebra all the way.

Daily Star

9. Cama: If you mix together a male camel and female llama, you have yourself a cama. They basically look like smaller, fluffier camels. Scientists artificially reproduced them to create an animal that generated a larger amount of wool than a llama.

Petr Meissner / Flickr

10. Leopon: The gorgeous and almost majestic coat on this animal is the result of a lioness mating with a male leopard. The very first leopon was produced in India in 1910, and by 2018, there were only 100 of them in the world.

Michele Keeler / Instagram

11. Hinny: These mixtures of male horses and female donkeys are slightly smaller than horses, and they have thicker fur coats. They also cannot reproduce on their own, making them very difficult to obtain.

12. Wolfdog: You can probably guess what two animals make up this species! They were first bred together for people who wanted to own exotic-looking animals. Because they’re genetic mixtures of both dogs and wolves, it’s difficult to predict physical and behavioral characteristics.

13. Tigon: This hybrid is a cross between a female lion and a male tiger. Because they’re sterile, they can only exist in captivity; however, in 1943, a female tigon actually mated with a male lion at the Munich Hellabrunn Zoo. The cubs were raised into adulthood.

Wikimedia

14. Geep: This adorable animal is the rare crossbreed between a sheep and a goat. Although sheep and goats are very similar, when they breed with each other, their offspring are more often than not stillborn.

15. Jaglion: This mystical-eyed animal is the cross between a male jaguar and female lion. Funny enough, it was actually unintentionally bred when a jaguar and lion lived together in the same zoo enclosure.

quatzakotelwoingenau / Imgur

16. Zebroid: This animal looks a lot like a horse, but that coat has zebra written all over it. Zebroid is the term given to a zebra mixed with any other type of equestrian animal — and this one looks fantastical!

jeremy_binns / Instagram

17. Zubron: This mix was originally thought to be an optimal replacement for cattle because they were stronger and more resistant to the kinds of diseases that would wipe out entire herds. However, the only remaining zubrons exist in a small herd in Poland’s Bialowieski National Park.

Bear Creek Sanctuary

18. Narluga: Although this animal is extremely rare, there has been an increase in sightings in the North Atlantic Ocean of this narwhal and beluga whale mix. The long nose of the narwhal is missing, and the head shape is more like a beluga whale.

19. Coywolf: Coyotes and wolves are very similar, and they’re able to produce offspring without complications. Coywolves boast many characteristics of both species, and, in terms of sheer size, they’re between a coyote and wolf.

Wikimedia

20. Mulard: This mixture of a mallard duck and muscovy duck can’t create offspring. Farms commercially produce this domestic duck — a hybrid of different genera — for foie gras and lean meat.

20. Mulard: This mixture of a mallard duck and muscovy duck can’t create offspring. Farms commercially produce this domestic duck — a hybrid of different genera — for foie gras and lean meat.

Anne Marie Fraser / Flickr

20. Mulard: This mixture of a mallard duck and muscovy duck can’t create offspring. Farms commercially produce this domestic duck — a hybrid of different genera — for foie gras and lean meat.

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