While sailing the ocean near Haiti, Christopher Columbus in 1493 reported seeing three mermaids from a distance.

The Genoese explorer was not impressed.

Up close, the sea maidens were "not as pretty as they are depicted," he wrote in his journal, "for somehow in the face they look like men."

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Many scientists now think that what Columbus probably saw was a manatee, an aquatic mammal that resembles a flippered hippo.

In a new exhibition opening at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City this weekend, viewers can digitally superimpose the picture of a mermaid atop that of a manatee and see how Columbus and countless other sailors might have been fooled.

Entitled "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids," the exhibition traces the possible origins of some of the world's most famous "imaginary" beasts, as well as their lesser-known counterparts.

Nature and myth

"This museum has a long history of studying and presenting great stories about the natural world and the culture of humanity," said AMNH president Ellen Futter at a press preview of the exhibition earlier this week. "In this exhibition, we extend that tradition further, by looking at the intersection of nature and culture, those moments when people glimpse something fantastical in nature."

The exhibition deftly combines nature and myth, paleontology and anthropology, and delightfully campy models of mythical creatures with real fossils.

Upon first entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by a 17-foot-long, green, European dragon of the sort that legend says Saint George slew.

Its sinuous and colorful Chinese counterpart hangs from the ceiling in one of the last rooms of the exhibition.

In the mythical water-creatures section, the large tentacles and head of the giant-squid-inspired kraken rise from the floor, its body mostly hidden.

An imaginary bestiary

"Mythic Creatures" borrows specimens and artifacts from the fossil, art and anthropological collections of the AMNH and other museums, and examines how such objects might have — through imagination, misidentification, speculation or outright deception — given birth to such fantastical creatures.

"Faced with awesome nature, our imaginations might create something to be revered, something beautiful, something to be gently feared or something simply whimsical and playful, perhaps even magical," Futter said. "I trust that this exhibition will show you a little of all of these."

Visitors can touch a real narwhal tusk, which for centuries many Europeans accepted as proof of the unicorn's existence.

Or they can glimpse the beaked skull of a Protoceratops dinosaur, one of the fossil animals that practically litter the Gobi Desert even today, and which traders long ago might have mistaken for the remains of a griffin — a mythical creature with the head and forelimbs of an eagle and the body of a lion.

The exhibition makes a convincing argument for why the same creatures pop up in the stories of cultures separated by great spans of time and distance.

Mermaids, for example, were probably born in the minds of lonely European sailors, and as their boats touched shore around the world, the image of the half-woman, half-fish creature spread, often becoming intermixed with local beliefs.

"This is a really intriguing form — the idea of a beautiful woman who also lives in the water," Laurel Kendall, one of the museum's anthropology curators, told LiveScience. "[For] people who have water goddesses, it seems when they encounter the image of the mermaid, [they find] this is a great way to represent them."

Trivia

"Mythic Creatures" also introduces visitors to imaginary beasts most of them have probably never heard of.

There is the Japanese kappa, a green monkey-faced creature that had an appetite for children and cucumbers. Kappas were said to have lived in ponds but occasionally walked on land. They had bowl-shaped indentations on their heads, where they kept a shallow pool of pond water that was the source of their power.

Travelers encountering a kappa late at night were advised to bow; when the kappa bowed in turn, it would spill its water and, powerless, scurry back to its pond.

The exhibition is also a rich source of mythical creatures' trivia.

Visitors can learn, for example, that, according to Marco Polo, Genghis Khan possessed the feather of a roc — a mythical giant bird said to dine on elephants — but that Marco Polo's translator, Sir Henry Yule, suspected was only a palm-tree frond.

According to the exhibition, not everyone agreed with Columbus about mermaids.

Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame reported that a mermaid he once glimpsed was "by no means unattractive."

Whether homely or beautiful, the monsters and beasts that once haunted the collective imaginations of our ancestors are given new life in "Mythic Creatures."

The exhibition will run from May 26, 2007, to Jan. 6, 2008.

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