Tag Archives: mongoose

Episode 225: Talking Animals

Talking animals! It’s not what you’re thinking about. No parrots here, just mammals.

Our new logo is by Susanna King of Flourish Media! If you’d like to JOIN OUR MAILING LIST!, I’ll be sending out a discount code soon for merch with our logo on it–but only for people on the mailing list (and patrons).

Further listening:

The MonsterTalk episode about Gef the Talking Mongoose (this episode has no swearing that I recall but some other episodes may have a little bit of salty language)

Mongolian Throat Singing

Further reading:

‘Talking’ seals mimic sounds from human speech, and validate a Boston legend

How do marine mammals produce sounds?

Elephant communication

Hoover the talking seal:

Janice, a gray seal who learned to mimic human speech and song:

Wikie, the orca who mimics human speech:

Kosik, an elephant who mimics human speech:

Gef the “talking mongoose”:

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, I have some announcements! First, you may have noticed we have a new logo! It’s by Susanna King of Flourish Media, who did a fantastic job! Susanna is also a listener, which is awesome. I’ve put a link to Flourish Media in the show notes if you have a company or something that needs professional graphic design.

If you’re interested in getting a shirt or mug with the new Strange Animals Podcast logo on it, I’m figuring out the best company to use for merch. If you sign up to our mailing list, as soon as merch is available I’ll be sending an email out about it, and I’ll include a discount code you can use to save some money! I’ve linked to the mailing list in the show notes, and it’s also linked on the website and my social media, but if you can’t find it, just send me a message and I’ll reply with the link.

The final announcement is that my cat Poe is finally home and recovering from a scary illness. He developed what’s called pyothorax, which is an infection in the chest, and in Poe’s case we still don’t know what caused it. After a week in the veterinary intensive care unit, he’s finally home and getting better all the time. That’s why last week’s episode was so short, and if you messaged me this week about something and I seemed impatient when I replied, that’s why. I just haven’t had any mental energy to concentrate on anything but Poe. Thank you to everyone at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center of Knoxville for taking such good care of him.

We’ve got something fun and a little different this time, inspired by two things. First, I saw a tweet about a captive beluga whale who had apparently learned to mimic human speech and one night told a diver in his pool to get out. Then the awesome podcast BewilderBeasts had a segment about a harbor seal in Maine who was rescued by a fisherman as a pup, which reminded me of a similar situation with another harbor seal in Maine, Hoover the Talking Seal. That’s right, it’s an episode about mammals that can talk, including one of my favorite cryptozoological mysteries ever.

Before we learn about talking animals, we need to learn a little bit about how humans talk. Humans produce most vocal sounds using our larynx, which is sometimes called a voicebox. The human larynx is situated at the top of the throat, and it helps us breathe, helps keep food from going down the wrong tube and into the lungs, and enables us to make sounds. It consists of cartilage, small muscles, and flaps of tissue called vocal folds or vocal cords. There are two kinds of vocal folds: the true vocal folds that are connected to muscles and actually produce sound, and the false vocal folds that don’t have any connected muscles and just help with resonance.

Usually resonance just makes the sound louder, but humans have learned to do amazing things with our voices. Some cultures use the false vocal folds to create a secondary tone. It’s called overtone singing, throat singing, or harmonic singing. I’m still completely in love with the Mongolian folk metal band the Hu and am now delighted that I can mention them again, because they use throat singing in their music. Throat singing produces overtones with various different sounds, depending on the technique used, but it can be hard to pick them out of a song if you’re not sure what you’re hearing. So instead of playing a clip of a Hu song, here’s a clip of a musician demonstrating various kinds of throat singing while also playing along on the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. The morin khuur only has two strings so the drone and whistle sounds you’re hearing are not from that instrument, they’re made by the musician’s voice. [Musician is Zagd Ochir AKA Sumiyabazar.]

[clip of throat singing]

When you think of animals that could potentially talk in human language, naturally you’d assume our closest relatives, the great apes, could learn to talk. But while apes have larynxes that are similar to ours, they don’t have the fine control over their vocal cords that humans do. But the larynx isn’t the only part of the body involved in human speech, it’s just the part that makes noise. We use the tongue and lips to form sounds into words, which takes a lot of fine control over very small muscles. Apes don’t have that kind of control of the mouth muscles. More importantly, they don’t have the same language centers in the brain that humans do. Apes can learn to use very simple versions of sign language or indicate words on a computer, but they aren’t able to use speech and language the way we do. In the wild, apes communicate with sounds, but they also communicate a lot more with gestures and body language, so they don’t need to speak words.

In the 1940s and 50s, a human couple who were both primate biologists worked with a young chimpanzee named Viki, trying to teach her spoken language as well as signs. While Viki was a quick learner and showed high intelligence, she only managed to ever speak seven words, and only four of those clearly. Those four words were mama and papa, cup, and up. I found a clip of Viki saying the word ‘cup,’ and while the audio was really bad, I don’t think she was actually vocalizing the word, just making the consonant sounds with her mouth.

But there are other animals that can mimic human speech, even if they don’t necessarily understand what they’re saying. Parrots and some other birds are the prime examples, of course, but we’re talking about talking mammals today.

Back in episode 23 I mentioned Hoover the talking seal and played this clip of his voice, one of only a few recordings we have of him.

[talking seal recording]

That may sound like a gruff man with a strong accent, but it’s a seal. In spring of 1971, in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, which is in the extreme northeastern United States, a man found a baby harbor seal. He and his brother-in-law George Swallow hunted around for the seal pup’s mother, but sadly they found her dead body. George Swallow decided to take the baby seal home and see if he could keep him alive.

The baby seal ate so fast that Swallow and his wife named him Hoover, after the vacuum cleaner brand. Hoover stayed in a pond in the back of their house, and he not only survived, he did really well. Swallow basically treated Hoover like a dog and the two hung out together all the time. If Swallow had to go somewhere, Hoover rode along in the car. Before long, Hoover started imitating Swallow’s speech.

Finally, though, Hoover got so big and was eating so much fish that the Swallows couldn’t keep him. The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts agreed to take him in, and there Hoover stayed, happy and healthy until he died in 1985. When Swallow brought Hoover to the aquarium, he mentioned that the seal could talk. No one believed him. I wish I could have seen the keepers’ faces when Hoover first said, “Hello there!” in a voice that sounded just like George Swallow’s.

Here’s another clip of Hoover talking:

But if a chimpanzee can’t manage to speak human words, how can a seal? Seals of all kinds have a larynx that’s very similar to the human larynx, which allows a seal to physically imitate human vowel sounds. It also has the mental drive to imitate sounds and the mental flexibility to do a good job imitating sounds that aren’t normal seal noises. Seals are highly social animals and communicate with each other with a complex range of sounds.

A study published in 2019 focused on a trio of young gray seals, named Janice, Zola, and Gandalf, who learned to imitate vocal tones, even tunes, proving that Hoover’s ability to imitate his caregiver wasn’t just a fluke. The seals were released into the wild after a year. This is a clip of one of them singing in response to a computerized tune:

[clip of seal singing]

It’s not a coincidence that animals learn to imitate human speech while in captivity. Seals and other animals who communicate with sound learn to imitate what they hear most often. In wild animals, that’s almost always the calls of other animals of their own species, but animals in captivity often hear humans most of the time.

In the case of Wikie, an orca, or killer whale, she was taught to imitate human sounds by researchers. Wikie was born in captivity in 2001 and in 2018, researchers reported that they had taught her to imitate several words, including hello.

Whales and other cetaceans have very different anatomy from seals. They make lots of sounds, from clicks and whistles used for communication and navigation, to the incredibly loud, complex songs that some baleen whales use to attract mates. But they don’t always make those sounds with their larynx.

Toothed whales, including dolphins, make a lot of sounds with the blowhole, which is the specialized nostril at the top of the whale’s head that allows it to take a breath without having to stop moving or put its head out of the water. Toothed whales have specialized air sacs near the blowhole that allow a whale to make high-frequency sounds for echolocation, and it uses its larynx to make whistles and other noises. It may also clap its jaws together and slap the water with its tail or flippers to make sounds, especially ones that signal aggression.

Baleen whales have an inflatable pouch called the laryngeal sac that allows a whale to make extremely loud sounds with its larynx. Many animals have something similar to the laryngeal sac, including some primates. If you remember episode 76, where we talked about the siamang, a type of gibbon, it has a throat pouch called a gular sac that increases the resonance and loudness of its voice.

Orcas in particular imitate sounds made by other orcas, so much so that when an orca pod moves into new territory, it will adopt the sounds made by the local orcas. They will also imitate the sounds made by sea lions and bottlenose dolphins. It’s not surprising, then, that Wikie was able to learn to imitate human words. Here’s some audio of Wikie saying hello (sort of):

[orca speech]

Another mammal that can learn to imitate human speech, at least occasionally, is the elephant! One famous talking elephant is Kosik [koh-shik], an Indian elephant in South Korea who has learned to say yes, no, sit, and several other words, in Korean of course. Kosik puts the tip of his trunk in his mouth and exhales while moving his trunk around to produce the sounds.

The elephant does use its larynx to make sounds, but it also has the option to use its trunk as a resonant chamber to make the sounds deeper. Some of the sounds an elephant makes are below the range of human hearing, as are many sounds baleen whales make. The elephant’s larynx is especially flexible too compared to most mammals, and as if its trunk wasn’t enough, it also has a pharyngeal pouch at the base of the tongue that it uses to produce low frequency calls.

This pharyngeal pouch is different from the baleen whale’s laryngeal sac and the siamang’s gular sac, although all three are used for similar purposes. The elephant actually stores water in the pouch, several liters of water. If an elephant can’t find water and is thirsty, it will stick its trunk deep into its mouth and into the pouch, then constrict the muscles around the pouch to push the water up. Then it can drink the water. It’s like having a built-in water bottle that also allows you to make deep noises.

Batyr was another elephant who reportedly learned to imitate some words and phrases, these in Russian and Kazakh. He lived in a zoo in Kazakhstan until his death in 1993. Like Kosik, Batyr produced the words by sticking his trunk in his mouth, with one keeper reporting that he actually moved his tongue into place with his trunk to make the right sounds. It’s possible that’s exactly what he was doing, since an elephant’s trunk is much more dexterous than an elephant’s tongue. He would also sometimes imitate other animals heard in the zoo.

All the animals we’ve discussed so far were only imitating human words. While they may have learned to use the words appropriately, for instance saying the word water when they wanted a drink, there’s no evidence that any of these animals truly understood the meaning of the words they learned to imitate. But there is one talking animal that was supposed to understand every word he said, a strange and elusive animal only seen by a few people but heard by many more. He’s called Gef the talking mongoose, and he’s one of my very favorite cryptids.

Gef’s story starts in 1931 on the Isle of Man, a British island in the Irish Sea. A family lived in a remote farmhouse near the village of Darby: James Irving (who went by Jim), his wife Margaret, and their twelve-year-old daughter Voirrey. They also had a sheepdog named Mona. The house was a big stone one with wood paneling inside, but with a gap between the stone and wood. These days that would be where the insulation would go to keep the house warmer, but this was before modern insulation and as far as I’ve read the gap was empty. The house didn’t have electricity either.

One night in 1931 the family heard an animal rustling and scratching around inside the gap. This probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence, since there are mice and rats on the Isle of Man along with stoats and ferrets. Any of those might decide to investigate the house and make a little home in the gap between the outer and inner walls.

In this case, though, the animal started out making little animal sounds but soon started trying to talk. At first it sounded like a baby babbling, but within a few weeks it was speaking clearly in English.

The family didn’t know what to think. At first they actually tried to poison the animal, but before long they made peace with it and named him Gef. They rarely saw Gef, just talked to him through the walls. Occasionally they’d see a bright eye peering at them through a knothole or see Gef outside, whisking across the fields. He wasn’t very big, only about a foot long, or 30 cm, including his bushy tail. He was yellowish in color with a slender ferret-like body, and his tail had a black tip. But he wasn’t a ferret, and apparently his front feet were shaped more like tiny human hands than like an animal’s paws. Gef described himself as a mongoose, specifically, “a little extra, extra clever mongoose.”

The weird thing is, there were mongooses on the Isle of Man at the time even though the mongoose is native to Africa, southern Asia, and southern Europe—but only where it’s warm most of the time. They certainly don’t live on the Isle of Man ordinarily. A man who owned a neighboring farm had imported some to kill rabbits, since there are no foxes on the island to keep the rabbit population down. There are even occasional sightings of what might be mongooses on the island today. The mongoose resembles mustelids like weasels and ferrets, but isn’t very closely related to them, and some species are yellowish in color. But the mongoose is much larger than Gef and has a more tapered tail. Also, mongooses don’t actually talk.

The meerkat is a type of mongoose, so if you ever watched Meerkat Manor you know a lot about mongooses already.

Anyway, Gef was clearly not actually a mongoose. The question is whether he was a real animal at all. In many ways, he had more in common with supernatural entities like poltergeists and brownies than with ordinary animals. He sometimes seemed to know about things before they happened, he seemed able to vanish when he didn’t want to be seen, and he made fantastic claims about his history. He also sprinkled words and phrases from other languages into his speech.

At the time, most people on the island thought Voirrey had invented Gef for attention, or maybe in an attempt to get her family to move somewhere more comfortable. She didn’t like living on a farm where the nearest neighbor was two miles away. But Voirrey claimed to the very end of her life—and she lived until 2005—that she hadn’t invented Gef and in fact Gef had ruined her life in some ways. She was teased about him in school and hated all the attention surrounding him, so much so that when she grew up and moved away, she actually changed her name to try and avoid any further publicity. She almost never gave interviews about Gef, and her family certainly never made any money off their resident talking animal even though they were very poor.

These days, a lot of suspicion focuses on Voirrey’s father, Jim Irving. Almost all of the information we have about what Gef said and did comes from Jim’s diaries and letters. He wrote a lot about Gef and apparently planned to write a book about the family’s experiences. The famous investigator of mysterious phenomena, Harry Price, told Jim there was no money in a book about Gef—and then promptly published his own book about Gef, which was a mean trick. Harry Price thought Voirrey was speaking as Gef by somehow throwing her voice, probably by using the acoustic properties of the double-walled house.

It’s possible, of course, that Gef was invented by Jim as a way to make Voirrey happier about having little animals scrabbling about in the walls. It might have started as a family joke that got out of control when people outside the family heard about it. Jim sounds like he was a little bit of a showman and had big dreams. He might have decided that his little family in-joke about Gef the talking mongoose would make a good book, and started spreading the story around as though it was real. Before long, people were swarming to his farmhouse to listen for Gef, Voirrey was being teased and blamed for the phenomenon, and people were demanding proof that Gef was real. Jim couldn’t admit he’d made the whole thing up and risk everyone getting angry.

Jim had traveled widely when he was younger and knew a smattering of words from other languages—the same words that Gef sprinkled into his speech. And remember, Jim is the main source of information about Gef. I wonder if Voirrey understood that her father had painted himself into a corner by telling people about Gef, because she tried to help prove the talking mongoose was real. She produced some hairs she said came from Gef, but when analyzed they were found to be identical to Mona the sheepdog’s fur. Voirrey produced some footprints and tooth prints supposedly made by Gef in plasticine, but they look a lot like they were made by someone poking designs into the plasticine with a sharp stick.

Gef became less and less active over the years, disappearing for months at a time, and by 1939 he was pretty much gone. Voirrey was grown by then and probably long tired of the joke. Jim died in 1945.

Whatever or whoever was behind the talking mongoose story, it’s definitely fun to think about. Gef was snarky, clever, sometimes funny, always weird. For instance, when Jim told Gef “We are having a dictaphone to record your voice,” Gef replied, “Who’s we? Is it that spook man Harry Price? Why, I won’t speak into it. I’ll go and smash his windows. I’ll drop a brick on him as he lies in bed. Me, at the age of 83?” Gef claimed he was born in India on June 7, 1852. Sometimes he said he was an earthbound spirit, sometimes he said he was not a spirit, just a mongoose. Once he said, “I am a ghost in the form of a weasel, and I shall haunt you with weird noises and clanking chains.” Mostly, though, he just recounted village gossip and demanded treats. Occasionally he killed a rabbit and left it for Voirrey like a pet cat leaving a mouse for its owner.

If my cats could speak, I’m pretty sure Poe would be complaining nonstop about having to be in the hospital for a whole week. Actually, he is complaining nonstop about it, just not in actual words. But I understand him anyway.

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 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:


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!