Tag Archives: cobra

Episode 053: Dragons



It’s our one-year anniversary! To celebrate, I’ve opened up a Patreon bonus episode for anyone to listen to. Just click the link below and you can listen in your browser:

bonus episode – Salty Animals

This week’s episode is about dragons, specifically dragons of western/English-speaking tradition. Even narrowing it down like that leaves us with a lot of ground to cover! Thanks to Emily whose suggestion of the Komodo dragon as a topic started this whole ball rolling.

A dragon from the game Flight Rising, specifically one of MY dragons. Her name is Lily. She’s so pretty.

The Lambton worm:

A spitting cobra:

A Nile crocodile:

Deinosuchus skeleton and two humans for scale. I stole this off the internet as usual so I don’t know who the people are. They look pretty happy to be in the picture:

St. George and the Dragon (REENACTMENT):

Klagenfurt dragon statue:

A wooly rhino skull:

The star of the show today, the Komodo dragon!

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s celebrate the podcast’s one-year anniversary with a big episode about dragons. Emily suggested komodo dragons as a topic, and then it all just spiraled out of control from there.

But first, a bit of housekeeping. Since it’s our one-year anniversary I’ve unlocked a Patreon episode so that anyone can listen. This one’s about salty animals. There’s a link in the show notes. Just click it and it’ll take you to the page where you can listen on your browser. You don’t need a Patreon login or anything.

Second, I got a polite correction recently from a listener about subspecies. Podbean is being a butt so I can’t actually see the comment, just read it in the email they sent, so I’m not sure who to thank. But they pointed out that “when the subspecies name is the same as the species name, it means it’s the first subspecies formally described, or the nominate subspecies.” In other words, Panthera tigris tigris didn’t get that second tigris because it’s extra tigery, it got it because it was the first tiger subspecies described. Although it is extra tigery.

So now, let’s learn about dragons.

Until the early 13th century or so, the word dragon wasn’t part of the English language. We swiped it from French, which in turn got it from Latin, which took it from Greek. Before the word dragon became a common word, dragon-like creatures were frequently called worms. A worm used to mean any animal that was snakey in shape. Old stories of dragons in English folklore are frequently snakier than modern dragons. For instance, the Lambton worm.

The story goes that a man called John Lambton went fishing one Easter Sunday instead of going to church, and as punishment he caught not fish but a black leech-like creature with nine holes on each side of its head. He flung it into a well in disgust, and joined the crusades to atone for fishing on the Sabbath. But while he was gone, the worm grew enormous. It killed people and livestock, uprooted trees, and even blighted crops with its poisonous breath. It couldn’t be killed, either, because if it was chopped in two, its pieces rejoined.

When John Lambton returned from the crusades seven years later and found out what had happened, he sought the advice of a local wise woman about what to do. Then he covered a suit of armor with sharp spines, and wearing it, lured the worm into the river Wear, where it tried to squeeze him to death. But the spines cut it up into pieces that were swept away by the river so they couldn’t rejoin. The end.

I don’t want to derail the dragon talk too much here, but I’m just going to point out that the sea lamprey has seven little holes behind each eye called branchial openings. It’s also eel-like and can be partially black, and it’s gross. If you want to learn more about it, and about my irrational dislike of this interesting animal, you can go back and listen to episode three.

Anyway, even after English adopted the word dragon, it didn’t mean dragon exactly. It was just a word for a big snake, especially one with mythical attributes or enormous size. But artists the world over are fond of adding wings and legs to reptiles, especially to snakes. Snakes just look so…undecorated. Gradually dragon took on its current meaning, that of a reptile with four legs, possibly a pair of wings, decorative horns and spikes and spines, and the ability to breathe fire. Actual. Fire.

That kind of dragon simply can’t exist except in folklore and fiction. But human creativity aside, many aspects of the dragon, at least the dragons of western tradition, are based on those of real-life animals.

If you’ve listened to episode 12, about the wyvern, the basilisk, and the cockatrice, you may remember the confusion among those terms and what they stand for. Technically all three are types of dragons, since the definition of dragon is actually pretty loose. In that episode, we discussed the king cobra as the possible source of many stories of the basilisk.

The king cobra doesn’t spit venom, but many species of cobra do. While cobra venom won’t hurt you very much if it just touches undamaged skin, it will hurt your eyes if it gets into them. And spitting cobras aim for the eyes. The venom is actually sprayed directly from the cobra’s fangs, which have tiny holes in the front that work sort of like a spray bottle. Some species of cobra can spit venom over six feet, or two meters, and they can also inject venom by biting. Cobra venom can cause blindness if enough gets in the eyes, and it certainly causes eye pain and swelling. Not only that, but a few other species of venomous snake, such as the Mangshan pit viper, sometimes also spit venom.

As far as I’m concerned, a big snake that sprays venom at your eyes is a good basis for the story of a dragon that breathes fire. I’d almost rather deal with a firebreather, to be honest, because I know to stop, drop, and roll if I catch on fire. Be safe, kids. This has been a public service announcement.

Crocodiles have undoubtedly influenced dragon mythology. In fact, so many common dragon traits are present in crocodiles that if you discount the wings and firebreathing, crocodiles basically are dragons. The biggest crocodile living today is the saltwater crocodile, which can grow over 20 feet long, or 6 meters, and which lives in southeast Asia, eastern India, and northern Australia. The second biggest crocodile is the Nile crocodile, which can grow nearly as long, and which lives throughout much of Africa around rivers, lakes, and swamps. Male saltwater crocodiles are typically larger than females, while female Nile crocodiles are typically larger than males.

While crocodiles look like big lizards, they’re actually more closely related to birds and dinosaurs. They can also live a long time, occasionally over a hundred years. All crocodiles are good swimmers with webbed feet that help them change directions quickly. They can also run pretty fast out of water. A crocodile’s back is heavily armored with thick scales and osteoderms, or scutes, which are bony deposits in the skin. Crocodiles have long jaws studded with 80 teeth, and if a croc loses a tooth, another grows in its place. It can just keep replacing its teeth up to 50 times. It has good night vision, a good sense of smell, good hearing, and special sensory pits on its jaws that allow a croc to hunt and escape danger even in complete darkness. A croc’s stomach contains acid that would make even the bearded vulture envious, so it has no problem digesting bones, hooves, and horns efficiently, a good thing since Crocodiles usually swallow their prey whole. And crocodiles have the strongest bite of any living animal, stronger even than a great white shark.

Of course, there used to be bigger crocodiles. Do you want to learn about gigantic extinct crocodiles? OF COURSE YOU DO, that is basically why we’re all here.

Okay, so, there used to be a 35-foot, or almost 11-meter-long crocodile called Deinosuchus that lived around 75 million years ago in what is now North America. It basically looked like a modern crocodile, but its rear teeth were shorter and blunter than its front teeth. They were adapted to crush its prey rather than bite through it, probably because with a bite force that was probably stronger than a T. rex’s, it didn’t want to accidentally bite a big chunk out of the dinosaurs it ate. Yeah. It ate dinosaurs.

So crocodiles probably did a lot to inspire dragon folklore. There’s still a lot of mythology wrapped around the crocodile today, for that matter. You know those little birds that are supposed to clean crocodile teeth? Not actually a thing. I’ve lived my whole life thinking that was pretty neat, only to find it’s a myth.

Sometimes in spring a croc will lie in the water with sticks on its snout. When a bird flies down to pick up a stick for nesting, the crocodile will grab the bird and eat it. This is a real thing that happens, not a myth. Crocodiles are actually pretty smart. And sometimes they hunt in packs.

One of the most famous traditional dragon stories in the English language is that of St. George and the Dragon, which probably originated from stories brought back to Britain during the Crusades. The story became especially popular in the 13th century and there are many versions.

According to the story, a venomous dragon lived in a pond near a city, and had poisoned not only its pond, but the entire countryside. To keep the dragon from approaching the city, the people had to feed it their own children. Each day the people held a terrible lottery to see who had to send one of their children to the pond for the dragon to eat. One day the princess was chosen, and despite all the king’s gold and silver he had to send his daughter to be eaten by the dragon.

Fortunately for her, St. George just happened to be riding by. The dragon emerged from its pond and St. George thought, oh no, we’re not having any of that, and charged it. He wounded it with his lance, then had the princess give him her girdle to use as a collar. A girdle in this case was something between a decorative belt and a ribbon tied around the waist. As soon as St. George tied the girdle around the dragon’s neck, it became meek as a puppy and followed him back to the city.

Naturally, everyone was terrified, but St. George said he would kill the dragon if the king and his people would convert to Christianity. They did, he did, and that was the end of the dragon.

While crocodiles and big snakes undoubtedly strongly influenced dragon lore, something else did too. There’s a reason dragons are so often supposed to live in caves, for instance. Caves are good places to find fossils of huge extinct animals.

In Klagenfurt in Austria there’s a monument of a dragon, called the lindorm or lindwurm, that was erected in 1593. It still stands today, together with a statue of Hercules that was added almost 40 years later. The dragon statue is based on a story of the region. The story goes that a dragon lived near the lake and on foggy days would leap out of the fog and attack people. Sometimes people could hear its roaring over the noise of the river. Finally the duke had a tower built and filled it with brave knights. They fastened a barbed chain to a collar on a bull, and when the dragon came and swallowed the bull, the chain caught in its throat and tethered it to the tower. The knights came out and killed the dragon.

The original story probably dates to around the 12th century, but it was given new life in 1335 when a skull was found in a local gravel pit. It was clearly a dragon skull and in fact it’s still on display in a local museum. The monument’s artist based the shape of the dragon’s head on the skull. In 1935 the skull was identified as that of a wooly rhinoceros.

Other dragon stories probably started when someone saw huge fossils they couldn’t identify. Dragons, after all, can look like just about anything. Stories of benevolent dragons living on Mount Pilatus in Switzerland may have started by pterodactyl fossils that are frequently found in the area. In 1421 a farmer saw a dragon flying to the mountain, and it was so close to him that the farmer fainted. When he woke, he found a stone left for him by the dragon, which had healing properties. The dragonstone is in a local museum these days and has been identified as a meteorite.

It occurs to me that if one were rich, and by one I mean me, one could take a dragon tour through Europe and visit all these awesome monuments and museums. That would be part of my expedition to search for the tatzelwurm in the Alps.

We’ll finish up at the animal I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, the Komodo dragon. While in many respects the Komodo dragon is a real-life dragon, it probably didn’t influence traditional dragon stories in the western world because no one in Europe knew anything about it until 1910. It only lives on five small islands, notably Komodo, but it’s also found on the island of Flores where the Homo floresiensis remains were found.

There were rumors for years of a type of land crocodile found on Komodo. Dutch sailors said it actually breathed fire and could even fly. In 1910, a Dutch Colonial Administration official from Flores took some soldiers to Komodo and searched for the dragon. They shot one, and Peter Ouwens, director of the Zoological Museum in Bogor, Java, hired hunters who killed two more. Ouwens studied the lizards and published a formal description in 1912. In direct contrast to many governments of the time, who were apparently trying to drive as many species to extinction as possible, in 1915 the Dutch government listed the Komodo dragon as protected.

Keep in mind that at this time, people were completely bonkers about dinosaurs and other megafauna. The Komodo dragon got incredibly famous in a very short amount of time. A 1926 scientific expedition that brought back two live dragons and twelve preserved ones actually inspired the 1933 movie King Kong. Since Komodo dragons displayed in zoos proved to be huge draws, but didn’t survive long in captivity back then, if the dragon hadn’t already been protected it probably would have been driven to extinction by collectors capturing them for zoos and killing them to sell to museums as taxidermied specimens.

Researchers used to think that the Komodo dragon, which is a type of monitor lizard, demonstrated island gigantism, where some species that are typically not so big grow larger when a population is restricted to an island. Island dwarfism is its opposite, where big animals like elephants evolve to become smaller in an island habitat. But many species of monitor lizard are large even though they don’t live on islands, and it turns out that a close relative of the Komodo dragon lived in Australia until around 50,000 years ago. In fact, the first aboriginal settlers of Australia might have encountered it.

It was called Megalania and it was the largest straight-up lizard, as opposed to dinosaur, that’s ever been found. While we don’t have any complete skeletons, some researchers estimate it grew to around 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, although older estimates had it up to 23 feet long, or 7 meters. Either way, it was much bigger than the Komodo dragon, which can grow just over ten feet long, or more than 3 meters.

Like the crocodile, the Komodo dragon’s skin contains osteoderms. It almost looks like it’s covered with tiny spines up close. Also like the crocodile, it grows new teeth when it loses old ones, which frankly is something I wish mammals could do because how useful would that be? It can run faster than a crocodile, can swim and dive well when it needs to although it prefers to stay on land, and when it’s young it can climb trees. Older dragons are too heavy to climb trees, but an adult can stand on its hind legs using its tail as a prop. It likes to dig burrows to sleep in, and females may dig nesting burrows 30 feet long, or 9 meters.

The Komodo dragon eats anything, from carrion to baby Komodo dragons to humans, but it especially likes deer and wild pigs. Its sense of smell is so acute, it can smell a dying animal almost six miles away, or 9 ½ km. It will swallow smaller prey whole but will tear chunks off of bigger carcasses.

We’re still learning about the Komodo dragon. For a long time researchers thought it had a nasty dirty mouth full of rotten meat, which infected its prey with bacteria when bitten. But it turns out that the Komodo dragon is actually venomous. This is still somewhat controversial, since the Komodo dragon’s saliva does contain 57 strains of bacteria and some researchers think that’s more toxic than its venom. Whatever the case, you do not want to be bitten by a Komodo dragon.

It’s primarily an ambush predator, and when it attacks an animal, it gives it a bite with its huge serrated teeth. If the animal gets away, no problem. The dragon’s venom contains anticoagulants so it will probably die of blood loss. As for the dragon itself, its blood actually contains antimicrobial proteins. Researchers hope to develop new antibiotics from the proteins.

Komodo dragon eggs are big, about the size of grapefruits. The mother dragon guards her nest until the babies hatch, and some researchers have observed mothers defending their babies for short periods after they hatch. Baby dragons mostly live in trees and eat insects, lizards, birds’ eggs, and other small prey. If they want to approach a grown-up dragon’s kill to eat some of it, a baby will roll around in poop first or in the stinky parts of the dead animal’s guts so the adult dragons won’t eat the baby. Captive female dragons occasionally lay fertile eggs even though they’ve never mated, a process known as parthenogesis.

Komodo dragons look dumb. They’re probably not exactly geniuses even compared to crocodiles. But dragons kept in captivity sometimes play with items in their enclosures, which is pretty neat. If even a Komodo dragon can take time out of its busy schedule to play, you can too.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

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!