Carl Linnaeus Debunked A Rumored Hydra Corpse

Anyone who thinks that a certain level of scientific genius imparts dignity might want to take a look at this incident in the life of Carl Linnaeus. He was a polymath, the father of modern biology, and also a hydra inspector for hire.

Carl Linnaeus has an entire classification system named after him. That's fair, because he named it, laying the foundation for taxonomy, and providing a organizational system that has guided scientists to this day. He wasn't just a darling of the scientific community. Literary lights like Rousseau and Goethe wrote him fan mail. He was adored, and celebrated. There was, however, one little adventure in his life that he probably wanted to forget.

Carl Linnaeus Debunked A Rumored Hydra Corpse

Once he'd started making a name for himself as a taxonomist, people sought his advice on matters of rare and wondrous animals. He wasn't always right (he considered the pelican a cryptid for a while), but he was conscientious and interested. So when he went to Hamburg around the time a local businessman had acquired a dead hydra, it looked like a great opportunity. Killing the hydra was one of the labors of Hercules, and he had his work cut out for him. A hydra had the body like a plesiosaur with claws, and many snakelike heads. How many heads? Depends on what kind of action the hydra had seen. Cut off one head and three grow in its place.

This hydra was relatively small, and had reportedly been killed hundreds of years before Linnaeus set eyes on it. The man who had bought it showed Linnaeus in between entertaining bids, one of which came from the King of Denmark. This hydra was covered with scales and had snake heads, but a closer look showed Linnaeus that the claws came from weasels, and the body was an amalgam of mammal parts with snakeskin sewed over it. The current owner hadn't been directly conned, as the animal seemed to be very old. Linnaeus guessed that it was first made in a monastery or church, to scare locals and keep them pious.

Linnaeus's display of scientific prowess was impressive to biology nerds, but not to the guy who had just bought a weasel in a snake waistcoat. It didn't please the local clergy either. Linnaeus had to get out of town quick, and make sure his reputation for debunkery didn't precede him, as it make people reluctant to show him their specimens. Fortunately, he seemed to have done well enough in science that he didn't have to hang all his hopes on a fake hydra.

[Via On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears]