Tag Archives: basilisk

Episode 252: Mini Rex



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Thanks to Zachary for suggesting this topic! Let’s learn about some sightings of what look like miniature theropod dinosaurs running around in the American Southwest!

Further reading:

All About Birds: Wild Turkey

A collared lizard running (photo by Joe McDonald from this page):

Basilisks running:

A female wild turkey:

A male wild turkey (note the tuft of hair-like feathers sticking forward, called a beard) (picture from this page):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Thanks to Zachary for his email a while back that helped shape this episode. Zachary has kept a lot of different kinds of pets, which we had a nice conversation about, and one of the reptiles he’s kept as a pet is in this episode. I’ll reveal which one at the end.

But first, a small correction, maybe. Paul from the awesome podcast Varmints! messaged me to point out that the word spelled A-N-O-L-E is pronounced a-NOLL, not a-NO-lee. I’d looked it up before I recorded so that confused me, so I looked it up again and it turns out that both pronunciations are used in different places and both are correct. So if you’ve always heard it a-NOLL, you’re fine, but now I can’t decide which pronunciation I should use.

This week we’re going to learn about an interesting mystery of the American southwest. Even though non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, occasionally someone spots what they think is a little dinosaur running along on its hind legs. They’re sometimes called mini rexes.

Many reports come from the American southwest, especially Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. For instance, in the late 1960s two teenaged brothers were looking for arrowheads near their home in Dove Creek, Colorado when they were startled by an animal running away from them at high speed. The boys said it looked like a miniature dinosaur, only about 14 inches tall, or 35 centimeters. It was kicking up so much dust as it ran on its hind legs that the boys had trouble making out details. They did note that it seemed to be brown and possibly had a row of spines running down its back, maybe even two rows of spines, similar to an iguana’s. It had long hind legs and shorter front legs that it held out in front of it as it ran.

The animal left behind three-toed footprints that the boys followed until they disappeared into some brush. The boys were familiar with turkey footprints but these were different, with the toes closer together and no rear-pointing toe prints.

In April 1996, in Cortez, Colorado, a woman saw an animal run past her house on its hind legs, seemingly from a nearby pond. It was greenish-gray and stood about 3.5 feet tall, or about a meter. It had a long neck and long, tapering tail. She didn’t notice its front legs but its hind legs had muscular thighs but were thinner below the hock joint.

One night in July 2001, a woman and her grown daughter were driving near Yellow Jacket, Colorado when they noticed an animal at the edge of the road. At first the driver thought it was a small deer and slammed on the brakes so she wouldn’t hit it, but when it darted across the road both women were shocked to see what looked like a small dinosaur pass through the headlight beams of the car. They reported it was about 3 feet tall, or 91 centimeters, and that it had no feathers or fur. Its legs were thin and long, while its arms were tiny and held out in front of its body. It had a slender neck, a small head, and a long tapering tail.

The witnesses in both the 1996 sighting and the 2001 sighting noted that the animal they saw ran gracefully. They also all agreed that the animals’ skin appeared smooth.

Lots of dinosaurs used to walk on their hind legs, but the reptiles living today are all four-footed. There are a few lizards that run on their hind legs occasionally, though, and one of them lives in the American southwest. The collared lizard, also called the mountain boomer, will run on its hind legs to escape predators. Females are usually light brown while males have a blue-green body and light brown head. The name collared lizard comes from the two black stripes both males and females show around their necks, with a white stripe in between. During breeding season, in early summer, females also have orange spots along their sides.

The collared lizard can run up to 16 miles an hour, or 26 kilometers per hour, for short bursts on its hind legs. It uses its long tail for balance as it runs, and its hind legs are three times the length of its front legs. This makes it a good jumper too. It mostly eats insects but will occasionally eat berries, small snakes, and even other lizards. It hibernates in winter in rock crevices.

While the teenaged boys probably saw a collared lizard in the 1960s, the other two sightings we just covered sound much different. The collared lizard typically only grows up to 14 inches long, or 35 centimeters, including its long tail.

A few other lizards are known to run on their hind legs, such as the basilisk that lives in rainforests of Central and South America. It’s famous for its ability to run across water on its hind legs. It’s much larger than the collared lizard, up to 2.5 feet long, or 76 centimeters, including its long tail. It holds its front legs out to its sides when running on its hind legs, and the toes on its hind feet have flaps of skin that help stop it from sinking. It has a crest on its head, and the male also has crests on his back and tail. It can be brown or green in color.

The basilisk is sometimes kept as an exotic pet. In 1981 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, four boys playing along some railroad tracks saw a green lizard that they thought was a baby dinosaur. It was 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, and had a crest and an extremely long tail. It ran away on its hind legs but one of the boys, who was 11 years old, managed to catch it. It startled him by squealing and he dropped it again, and this time it got away. It sounds like an escaped pet basilisk.

But let’s go back to our mini rex sightings from 1996 and 2001, the ones of dinosaur-like animals running gracefully on their hind legs with a long neck and long tail. These don’t sound like lizards at all. When lizards run on their hind legs, they don’t look much like how we imagine a tiny raptor dinosaur would look. They appear awkward while running, with their arms sticking out and their heads pointing more or less upward. While all the lizards known that can run on their hind legs have long tails, they all have relatively short necks.

There’s another type of animal that’s closely related to the dinosaurs, though, and every single one walks on its hind legs. That’s right: birds! All the birds alive today are descended from dinosaurs whose front legs evolved for flight. Even flightless birds are well adapted to walk on two legs.

Let’s look at the details of those two sightings again. Both were of animals estimated as about three feet tall or a little taller, or up to about a meter, with long neck, small head, long tapering tail held above the ground, and long, strong legs that were nevertheless thin. Both also appeared smooth. In one of the sightings, the front legs were tiny and held forward; in the other, the witness didn’t notice the front legs.

My suggestion is that in these two sightings, at least, the witnesses saw a particular kind of bird, a wild turkey. That may sound ridiculous if you’re thinking of a male turkey displaying his feathers, but most of the time turkeys don’t look round and poofy. Most of the time, in fact, the wild turkey’s feathers are sleek and its tail is an ordinary-looking long, skinny bird tail instead of a dramatic fan. Its feathers are mostly brown and black, the upper part of its long neck is bare of feathers, as is its small head, and its legs are long and strong but relatively thin. It also typically stands 3 to 3.5 feet tall, or up to about a meter, although some big males can stand over 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters. As for the front legs seen by witnesses in 2001, a full-grown male turkey has a tuft of long, hair-like feathers growing from the middle of his breast, called a beard. It sticks out from the rest of the feathers and might look like tiny arms if you were already convinced you were looking at a dinosaur instead of a bird.

That’s not to say that all mini-rex sightings are of turkeys, of course, but some of them probably are. The wild turkey lives throughout much of the United States, including most of Colorado. Since birds are the closest animals we have to dinosaurs these days, though, that’s still pretty neat.

Finally, the reptile Zachary kept as a pet was the collared lizard. I didn’t want to say so at the beginning and potentially spoil part of the mystery for some people!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 012: The Wyvern, the Basilisk, and the Cockatrice



This week we range across the world to solve (sort of) the mystery of the wyvern, the basilisk, the cockatrice, and crowing snakes! Thanks to listener Richard E. for suggesting this week’s topic!

From left to right, or whatever since the three have been confused since at least the middle ages: the basilisk, the cockatrice, and the wyvern:

The king cobra, or maybe the basilisk:

The Egyptian mongoose/ichneumon, or maybe the cockatrice:

Basilisk!

Further reading:

Extraordinary Animals Revisited by Karl P.N. Shuker

Gode Cookery: The Cockentrice – A Ryal Mete

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week’s episode was inspired by listener Richard E., who suggested the wyvern as a topic. He even attached some photos of wyverns in architecture around Leicester, England. I forgot to ask him if he lives in Leicester or just visits the city, but I looked at the photos and was struck by how much the wyvern resembles the cockatrice. Next thing I knew, I was scouring the internet for audio files of howling snakes. It all makes sense by the end.

Before we jump in, I’d like to apologize to a guy named Mike W. who is from Leicester. Mike, if by some crazy coincidence you’re listening, I am so, so sorry for the way I treated you in London in 1996. I was a jerk in my 20s, to put it mildly. You were such a great guy and I have felt awful ever since.

Okay, my oversharing out of the way, let’s talk about wyverns.

The word wyvern is related to the word viper, and originally that’s what it meant, but by the 17th century the word had lost its original meaning and was attached to a heraldic animal instead. The wyvern has been popular in heraldry since the middle ages.

In video games, the wyvern is usually a two-legged dragon with wings. In heraldry, it’s less dragonlike and more snakey, but it almost always has one pair of legs and one pair of wings. Frequently it wears a crown or has some sort of crest, and quite often its head looks a lot like a rooster’s.

The heraldic wyvern doesn’t seem to have ever been considered a real animal, but the cockatrice was. The cockatrice is usually depicted as a snakelike animal with a one pair of legs, one pair of wings, and a rooster-like head. You see the connection. But here’s the really confusing thing. The words cockatrice and basilisk were used more or less interchangeably as early as the 14th century. In fact, in the King James Version of the Bible, Isaiah 14 Verse 29 mentions a cockatrice, while the same verse in the English Revised Version uses the word basilisk instead.

Those two words don’t even sound alike. And if like me you grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading books like Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow, you think of the cockatrice and the basilisk as totally different animals.

I’m going to talk about the basilisk first. Then I’ll come back to the cockatrice.

The basilisk has an old, old pedigree. A lot of online sources claim that Pliny the Elder was the first to describe the basilisk in his natural history in about 79 CE, but it was already a well-known animal by then. We know because the Roman poet Lucan, who died in 65 CE, makes reference to the basilisk twice in his epic poem Pharsalia in a way that implies his audience was completely with the animal’s supposed abilities.

The basilisk was supposed to be deadly—so deadly, in fact, that if a man on horseback speared a basilisk, the venom would run up the spear and kill not only the rider, but the horse too. That’s one of the stories Lucan references in his poem. Pliny also includes it in his natural history.

All the basilisk had to do was look at you and you’d die or be turned to stone. Birds flying in sight of a basilisk, no matter how high above it they were, would die in midair. The ground around a basilisk’s home was blighted, every plant dead and even the rocks shattered.

So what did the basilisk look like? Pliny describes it this way. I’ve taken this quote from a site called “The Medieval Bestiary,” which has a much clearer translation than Wikipedia’s and other sites that seem to have copied Wikipedia.

“It is no more than twelve inches long [30 cm] and has white markings on its head that look like a diadem. Unlike other snakes, which flee its hiss, it moves forward with its middle raised high.”

In other words, the basilisk was a snake, and not even a big snake. And according to Pliny, the weasel was capable of killing the basilisk. “The serpent is thrown into a hole where a weasel lives and the stench of the weasel kills the basilisk at the same time as the basilisk kills the weasel.”

In other words, someone would pick up a basilisk—which was supposed to be deadly to touch—and toss it down into a weasel’s burrow, and the weasel and the basilisk would both end up dead. Pliny, did you even think about what you were writing?

But back up just a little and the story starts to make more sense. We all saw “Rikki Tikki Tavi” as kids, right? The mongoose does look like a weasel. It’s also resistant to the king cobra’s venom and will prey on it and other snakes. The king cobra has an expandable hood with light-colored false eye spots on it. Its venom is so potent that it can kill a human in half an hour, and one of the final symptoms is paralysis, which may account for reports of the basilisk turning people to stone. King cobras can’t spit their venom, but many other cobras can. And most importantly, the weird notion that the basilisk moves forward with its middle raised high maybe explained by the king cobra’s habit of rearing up when threatened. It can still move forward when its front is raised.

But the king cobra is a big snake. Its average length is about twelve feet [3.7 m] and it can grow as long as 18 feet [5.5 meters]. Pliny describes a snake only a foot long [30 cm]. It’s possible Pliny just wrote the length wrong, conflated the cobra with some smaller snake, or scribes made a mistake copying the original writing. But the idea that the basilisk is actually a cobra seems cemented not by Pliny but by Lucan. Let me quote from book nine of Pharsalia, verses 849 to 853:

“There upreared his regal head

And frighted from his track with sibilant terror

All the subjects swam

Baneful, ere darts his poison. Basilisk.

In sands deserted king.”

A hissing poisonous crowned animal that rears up? It sounds like a king cobra to me. And the fact that stories about the basilisk mention its terrible hissing makes it even more likely.

The king cobra’s hiss sounds more like a growl. It has low-frequency resonance chambers in its windpipe that enhance and deepen the sound of its hiss. Here’s a clip of one, and I would not want to hear this coming from a snake the length of a truck:

[scary hissing]

At some point, though, the basilisk became a more lizard-like animal in western culture and took on rooster-like characteristics. The Venerable Bede, an English monk who lived from about the year 672 to 735, was the first to write down the story of the basilisk as many of us know it today. He said the basilisk was born from an egg laid by an old rooster. Hens do occasionally change sex and take on male characteristics, such as growing a pronounced crest and wattles, long tail feathers, and crowing. Sometimes they stop laying eggs but sometimes they don’t.

Incidentally, the other chickens take all this in stride and do not make a big deal about where the new rooster can go to the bathroom.

Other details got added to the basilisk story over the centuries. Sometimes the egg is described as round and leathery, which is true of many reptile eggs, and sometimes a toad is supposed to brood the egg until it hatches. Sometimes the rooster has to lay the egg at a certain time of year or moon phase. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the egg being laid, the animal that hatches from it is supposed to be a deadly serpent or lizard.

These are all details not described by Pliny. My guess is that the story of a rooster’s egg hatching into a deadly reptile was already a folktale in England when Pliny wrote his Natural History. The stories got conflated, probably by scholars who thought they described the same animal. That might also explain why the word cockatrice got grafted onto the rooster-egg legend. Let’s go back to learn about the cockatrice to figure out how.

The word cockatrice comes from a medieval Latin word that was a translation of the Greek word ichneumon from our old friend Pliny’s Natural History. It’s the same name used for the mongoose, although it can also mean otter. According to Pliny, the ichneumon will fight a snake by first covering itself with several coats of mud and letting it dry to form armor. Pliny also describes the ichneumon as waiting for a crocodile to open its jaws for the little tooth-cleaning birds to enter. When the crocodile falls asleep during the bird’s ministrations, the ichneumon runs down its throat and eats the croc’s intestines, killing it.

So the word that inspired the cockatrice wasn’t a snake at all. It was something that killed snakes and crocodiles. The confusion seems to be etymological. Ichneumon means something like “tracker” from a Greek word I can’t spell, track or footstep. Translated into Latin, it becomes cockatrix [probably spelled wrong] for the word for “tread.” Cockatrice is the corruption of cockatrix. But a cockatrice to English-speaking ears no longer sounds like any kind of snake-killing mammal. It sounds like the word cock, a rooster, combined with a slithery-sounding ending. So it’s very possible the confusion came from the word change mixed with confused tellings of the basilisk story. And when you consider that Chaucer referred to the basilisk as a basilicock, it’s easy to see that English speakers, at least, have been confusing the words and monsters for many centuries.

So it seems we’ve solved this mystery once and for all. The basilisk was a king cobra, the cockatrice was a mongoose, the wyvern was a fanciful heraldic animal, and we’re done.

But wait. Not so fast.

There are widely spread stories of snakes with combs and wattles that can crow like roosters. But those stories aren’t from England. They’re from Africa, with related stories in the West Indies.

The story goes that there’s a snake in east and central Africa that can grow up to twenty feet long [6 meters]. It’s dark brown or gray but has a scarlet face with a red crest that projects forward. Males also have a pair of face wattles and can crow, while females cluck like hens. Supposedly they have deadly venom and will lunge down from trees to attack humans who pass beneath.

At this point I got a little frantic and started trying to find out more about snake sounds. I didn’t think snakes could do anything but hiss, but it turns out that snake vocalizations are a lot more interesting than that.

In addition to the cobra’s deep hiss, bull snakes grunt. That’s how they get their name; they sound a little like cows. And at least one snake makes a sound no one would expect. That’s the Bornean cave racer, Orthriophis taeniurus grabowskyi, native to Sumatra and Borneo. It’s a lovely slender blue snake, not poisonous, also called the beauty ratsnake, and can grow some six feet long [1.8 m]. Some subspecies are kept as pets, but not grabowskyi as far as I know.

The snake has been known to science for a long time, but in 1980, a scientific exploration of the Melinau cave system in Borneo heard an eerie hoarse yowling in the dark, something like a cat. After the scientists no doubt wet their pants, they spotted a beauty ratsnake coiled on the cave floor. It was clearly making the sound.

I tried so hard to find audio of this snake. I really, really wanted to share it. But I’ve had no luck so we’ll just have to imagine it.

Most snakes don’t have vocal cords. That’s the name given to folds of tissue above the larynx. Snakes do have a larynx, and the bull snake, also called the pine snake or gopher snake, and native to the southeastern United States as far north as New Jersey, has a single vocal cord and a well-developed glottis flap. They’re noisy little guys for snakes. They grunt, hiss, and rattle their tails against dead leaves to scare potential predators away. Here’s a sample:

[hissing snake]

There are also stories from all around the world, from every region where snakes live, about snakes mimicking prey to draw it near. The stories come from people from every walk of life who are in position to observe nature closely: farmers, hutners, fishers, explorers—but unfortunately not any scientists. Not yet, anyway. Here’s one of the many examples given in Karl Shuker’s excellent book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, an excerpt I’ve chosen for reasons that will shortly become clear. It’s from an African report from 1856.

“The story of the cockatrice, so common in many parts of the world, is also found among the Demares. But instead of crowing, or rather chuckling like a fowl when going to roost, they say it bleats like a lamb. On its head like the guinea fowl it has a horny protuberance of a reddish color.”

It’s entirely possible that many snakes make sounds that mimic other animals, although whether they do it to lure prey near or whether it’s just a coincidence is another thing. But what about the whole issue about snakes not being able to hear airborne sounds? When I was a kid, I remember reading many books that said snakes can’t hear, they can only detect vibrations from the ground through their jaw bones.

Well, that’s not actually true. Snakes can hear sounds quite well, although their range of hearing is limited compared to mammals. In fact, a survey published in 2003 by the Quarterly Review of Biology confirms that snakes are more sensitive to airborne sounds than they are to ground-borne sounds. So it’s not that ridiculous to imagine a snake that makes sounds people might interpret as crowing or clucking.

But what about the wattles? A lot of snakes have head decorations, including many species of horned vipers that have modified scales above the eyes that really do look like horns. The rhinoceros viper has two or three horns on its nose. I couldn’t find any snakes with wattle-like frills, but it’s not out of the range of possibility. Plus, sometimes snakes don’t fully shed their skins and end up with bits and pieces of old skin left behind, which can stick out from the body.

Whether the African crowing snake legends have anything to do with the European legends of basilisks hatched from rooster eggs, I have no idea. The stories are different enough that I’m inclined to think they’re not related. Then again, reports of crowing snakes might have influenced the basilisk legend.

Incidentally, there’s a real-life lizard given the name basilisk, also called the Jesus lizard because it runs on water to escape predators. It lives in tropic rain forests in Central and South America and can run as fast as seven miles per hour [11 km/hr] on its hind legs, and when it reaches water it just keeps going. It’s big webbed feet and its speed keep it from sinking immediately.

The name ichneumon has been given to a few modern animals too: a type of mongoose that ancient Egyptians believed ate crocodile eggs, and various types of flies and wasps that parasitize caterpillars.

I was hoping that the cockatrice and wyvern would have lent their names to modern real animals too, but I couldn’t find any. But I did find something almost as good. In the middle ages there was a fancy dish called a cockatrice. I found this at a site called “Gode Cookery dot com” where good is spelled g-o-d-e. The site has it listed under cockentrice, with an N. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Here’s a sample recipe, which the site took a book published in 1888 titled “Two Fifteenth Century Cookery-Books.”

“Take a capon, scald it, drain it clean, then cut it in half at the waist. Take a pig, scald it, drain it as the capon, and also cut it in half at the waist. Take needle and thread and sew the front part of the capon to the back part of the pig, and the front part of the pig to the back part of the capon, and then stuff it as you would stuff a pig. Put it on a spit and roast it, and when it is done, gild it on the outside with egg yolks, ginger, saffron, and parsley juice, and then serve it forth for a royal meat.”

A capon, incidentally, can mean either a castrated rooster or an old rooster. Either way, roast cockatrice sounds better than turducken, and way better than being the guy who has to throw the basilisk into the weasel den.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!