Considering 80% of the world’s oceans remain unknown, it’s almost impossible to imagine the constant wonders early explorers experienced. As they entered fantastic new worlds, European sailors landed in North America made of accounts of mermaids swimming off the shores of modern-day Haiti. Later, it was discovered these mythical half-fish-half-human creatures were none other than Manatees.   

©  / Alex Mustard / WWF

Where do myths get their start?

Manatees are marine mammals and are often called “sea cows” because they graze on aquatic grasses. They’re known for their curious and calm nature, often approaching humans and investigating vessels. Travel to Florida between November and April, and you’ll likely see Manatees in rivers, estuaries, and along coastlines. Intimate interactions with wildlife in their natural habitat like those afforded on Nat Hab’s Florida Nature Safari reveal a species’ temperament and the most minute of its tendencies. These close encounters often unveil the origins of an animal’s mythos. As you watch Manatees bob below the surface from the seat of an airboat or float alongside them in a sea kayak, you might recall those early sailors who mistook the creatures for mermaids.   

Why do humans mythologize animals?

The animals that inspire us are often exotic and infrequently seen, contributing to their mysticism and our consequential curiosity (as the manatees certainly did for early sailors.) But humans have a long history of relying on the animals native to our home regions and living closely with them. Animals have provided us with resources throughout our species’ history.   

The animal lives that fed, clothed, and kept us in safe company are also ones we mythologized. This traditions is especially strong in Indigenous cultures. Indigenous people on North America’s Northwest Coast depicted stories and illustrated folklore on wooden monuments known as totem poles. Tlingit and Haida artists often carved animals that provided resources and carried spiritual significance. Throughout the ancient archipelago, Haida Gwaii—which translates to “Land of the Haida” and is home to an oral history that spans 7,000 years—totem poles erupt from mossy coasts with pictures of native animals such as bears, orca whales, ravens, and frogs. The poles tell stories of tricky ravens and strong bears, and they capture how animals surrounding us were some of our earliest sources of inspiration.   

© Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada. Totem pole in Hartley Bay, British Columbia, Canada

What happens when myths are passed down?

Like all animals, humans and the stories we tell evolve with time. Before sailors spotted mermaids in warm Caribbean waters, Homer described sirens scattering Mediterranean shores. Inspired by mythical mermaids, the often-mistaken manatee earned its scientific name, Sirenia. But this was somewhat of a misunderstanding. The first account of sirens appears in Homer’s epic poem packed with Greek myth, The Odyssey. Once thought to be half-women-half-fish, more recent translations of The Odyssey reveal Ancient Greeks imagined these singing creatures as closer to birds than fish with taloned feet and feathers: not mermaids at all. Somewhere along the way, the tales were warped. Sirens became aquatic creatures instead of avian ones. 

© Fritz Pölking / WWF. Egrets in Everglades National Park, Florida

The passing down of myths is like a game of telephone our species has played through centuries and across continents. The history of mythmaking is rife with these instances of mistranslation and misunderstanding. Our impulse to create and share stories is associated with our desire for entertainment just as much as it is a necessary tradition of knowledge-sharing. That’s all to say our ancestors were sometimes more concerned with telling good stories instead of accurate ones. Because of this, myths can lead to deep stereotypes. 

Myths carry more human information than anything else. The animals featured in fairytales and folklore often reveal the great anxieties of our species. The wolf, for example, became a stand-in for ancestral stresses around safety and food insecurity. Snakes were associated with sin and evil in many religious societies. And many more animals have functioned as mere metaphors for fear spanning generations.  

The danger of stereotypes, metaphors, and misunderstandings

The negative stereotypes associated with wolves almost singlehandedly led to species decline through overhunting. Wolves are one of the most common motifs in North American and Eurasian mythology and folklore, corresponding to the historic habitat of gray wolves and the subspecies of the Arctic wolf. The fear of wolves is so widespread it has been coined lupophobia and observed even in young children outside of wolf habitat. Much of this fear is because of how stories have historically presented wolves. Consider some of the most persisting folktales and animal characters—the big bad wolf, the dire wolf, werewolves. The animals are almost always depicted with sharp teeth and salivating jowls, poised to eat children. They’re described as bloodthirsty and believed to kill for sport or thrill.

© Shutterstock / Agnieszka Bacal / WWF

At one point, wolves might have threatened earlier humans who competed with the predators for food or observed the animals hunting. However, lingering notions that wolves pose a significant threat to humans and livestock are unwarranted. 

Real-world interactions can challenge stereotypes 

Seeing a wolf in action on a wildlife expedition in Yellowstone National Park is an opportunity to contextualize the behaviors contributing to false stereotypes. Wolves prey on much larger animals like elk and moose, showcasing their calculated approach to hunting and formidable strength. It’s easy to consider the size of these prey animals compared to humans, and it certainly puts into perspective our own weaknesses. But these large animals are not the wolves’ only food sources. Wolves routinely hunt much smaller mammals like beavers and rabbits. Occasionally, when ecosystems are depleted of preferred prey animals, wolves will kill livestock. Even more uncommon (and primarily when food is scarce) wolves will engage in a form of hunting known as “surplus killing” in which they kill more prey than what is immediately needed. The leftovers go to feed offspring or support other members of the pack

© / Klein & Hubert / WWF

While wolves evolved for hunting, fatal attacks on humans are rare, averaging once per year over the past two decades, most of which involved a wolf with rabies. Despite this, people remain one of the biggest threats to wolves, often killing the animals they believe are threatening to livestock. After centuries of conflict between humans and wolves, the animals occupy only 10% of the area they once did in the lower 48 states.   

The misplaced fear of wolves is well-documented by conservation organizations like WWF that are committed to educating people about animals and the environment. In a cooperative effort between conservationists, the National Park Service, and state agencies, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, nearly 70 years after the last wolf was killed in the park. The decades-long reintroduction and protection projects have had considerable positive effects.

Wolf reintroduction leads to a trophic cascade

A trophic cascade occurs when s top predator in the food chain is restored and biodiversity is subsequently increases. The predators impact an area’s ecology and geography, and the effects extend to plant and animal species seemingly unrelated to gray wolves. From thriving willow stands to waterways dotted with beaver dams, the presence of wolves in the park can be witnessed on several guided trips with Nat Hab. Today, there are consistently around 100 wolves in the park, but they remain elusive to park visitors. With safe wildlife viewing a priority for Nat Hab, trips to Yellowstone maintain small group size, access exclusive lodging locations, and take travelers into remote locations in specialized safari vehicles in search of the gray wolves. Spotting one of the 11 packs in the park alongside a Nat Hab expert guide is a rare opportunity to challenge stereotypes associated with the species. 

© Charlie Reinertsen. Travelers in Yellowstone with Expedition Leader

How can myths have positive contributions to conservation efforts?

Yellowstone is home to another animal with strong mythos but without negative stereotypes like those associated with wolves. Plains bison once roamed an area that covered most US states in numbers upwards of 60 million. Because bison were once the widest-reaching large mammal on the continent, they became a reliable resource for Indigenous people. Several American Indian nations oriented their lives around the herds’ migrations. Bison provided food and materials for clothing, shelter, soap, and tools. Their horns and hair were necessary components in religious rituals. The nearly 2,000-pound animals became associated with strength and service. Bison inspired art, dances, and naming conventions within native communities. But after decades of overhunting, habitat destruction, and the strategic killing of herds by the US government to weaken Indigenous societies, in 1889, a little over 500 bison remained.   

© Thomas Lee / WWF-US

The history of bison conservation is an example of how myths can elevate animals into cultural and national consciousness. With the bison disappearing from America, it was clear that religions, cultures, and earlier ways of life were disappearing with them. The deep respect indigenous cultures held for this animal created a sense of urgency, revealing how animal myths are valuable tools for conservation. 

Conservation efforts occurring since the species’ devastating low point are a collaboration between Indigenous groups and other environmental advocates. The bison’s return to stable numbers is largely motivated by their unique importance to American Indians and their status as an indicator species for healthy grassland ecosystems. After nearly a century and a half of conservation, in 2016, the bison was named America’s official national animal. Today, the largest remaining wild herd of approximately 4,500 individuals can be found in Yellowstone National Park. 

© Thomas Szajner / WWF-US

 Myths might be necessary for solving the climate crisis

The intersection of conservation and storytelling—including mythology, religion, and folklore—has occurred globally: the worship of tigers in India, magical lemurs in Madagascar, and ancestral snakes in Sub-Saharan Africa. While our human stories about animals usually operate with some misunderstanding of these creatures, when it comes to conservation, we must recognize that myths are not all haunted, dark, and cautionary. Fairytales are often beacons of hope that inspire wonder. Reread “Sleeping Beauty” and consider the secret lives of forest frogs. Explore the tales in Arabian Nights and imagine yourself walking alongside majestic Asian elephants.   

Myths, fairytales, and folklore are all stories with settings. They include environments, places, and climates: dense green woods, misty bogs, unforgiving deserts, and long, lonely coasts. Myths are places where we live out our fantasies and explore our curiosities. They offer an image of a world where humans interact with wild animals. In the face of the climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction threatening the globe’s wildlife, this vision of the world is more necessary than ever. While myths reveal our anxieties, they also articulate our desires. Our desire to be close to animals, for animals to talk, and to understand their unattainable worlds are stories are so consistent in our history, they might be innate to our species.