Tag Archives: monitor lizard

Episode 181: Updates 3 and a lake monster!



It’s our annual updates and corrections episode, with a fun mystery animal at the end!

Thanks to everyone who contributed, including Bob, Richard J. who is my brother, Richard J. who isn’t my brother, Connor, Simon, Sam, Llewelly, Andrew Gable of the excellent Forgotten Darkness Podcast, and probably many others whose names I didn’t write down!

Further reading:

Northern bald ibis (Akh-bird)

Researchers learn more about teen-age T. rex

A squid fossil offers a rare record of pterosaur feeding behavior

The mysterious, legendary giant squid’s genome is revealed

Why giant squid are still mystifying scientists 150 years after they were discovered (excellent photos but you have to turn off your ad-blocker)

We now know the real range of the extinct Carolina parakeet

Platypus on brink of extinction

Discovery at ‘flower burial’ site could unravel mystery of Neanderthal death rites

A Neanderthal woman from Chagyrskyra Cave

The Iraqi Afa – a Middle Eastern mystery lizard

Further watching/listening:

Richard J. sent me a link to the Axolotl song and it’s EPIC

Bob sent me some more rat songs after I mentioned the song “Ben” in the rats episode, including The Naked Mole Rap and Rats in My Room (from 1957!)

The 2012 video purportedly of the Lagarfljótsormurinn monster

A squid fossil with a pterosaur tooth embedded:

A giant squid (not fossilized):

White-throated magpie-jay:

An updated map of the Carolina parakeet’s range:

A still from the video taken of a supposed Lagarfljót worm in 2012:

An even clearer photo of the Lagarfljót worm:

Show transcript:

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

This is our third annual updates and corrections episode, where I bring us up to date about some topics we’ve covered in the past. We’ll also talk about an interesting mystery animal at the end. There are lots of links in the show notes to articles I used in the episode’s research and to some videos you might find interesting.

While I was putting this episode together, I went through all the emails I received in the last year and discovered a few suggestions that never made it onto the list. I’m getting really backed up on suggestions again, with a bunch that are a year old or more, so the next few months will be all suggestion episodes! If you’re waiting to hear an episode about your suggestion, hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

Anyway, let’s start the updates episode with some corrections. In episode 173 about the forest raven, I mentioned that the northern bald ibis was considered sacred by ancient Egyptians. Simon asked me if that was actually the case or if only the sacred ibis was considered sacred. I mean, it’s right there in the name, sacred ibis.

I did a little digging and it turns out that while the sacred ibis was associated with the god Thoth, along with the baboon, the northern bald ibis was often depicted on temple walls. It was associated with the ankh, which ancient Egyptians considered part of the soul. That’s a really simplistic way to put it, but you’ll have to find an ancient history podcast to really do the subject justice. So the northern bald ibis was important to the ancient Egyptians and sort of considered sacred, but in a different way from the actual sacred ibis.

In episode 146 while I was talking about the archerfish, I said something about how I didn’t fully understand how the archerfish actually spits water so that it forms a bullet-like blob. Bob wrote and kindly explained in a very clear way what goes on: “Basically, the fish spits a stream of water, but squeezes it so that the back end of the stream is moving faster than the front. So it bunches up as it flies and hits the target with one big smack. Beyond that, the water bullet would fall apart as the back part moves through the front part of the stream, but the fish can apparently judge the distance just right.” That is really awesome.

In another correction, Sam told me ages ago that the official pronouns for Sue the T rex are they/them, because that’s what Sue has requested on their Twitter profile. I forgot to mention this last time, sorry.

While we’re talking about Tyrannosaurus rex, researchers have IDed two teenaged T rex specimens found in Montana. Originally paleontologists thought the specimens might be a related species that grew to a much smaller size, Nanotyrannus, but the team studying them have determined that they were juvenile T rexes. To learn how old the specimens were and how fast they grew, they cut extremely thin slices from the leg bones and examined them under high magnification.

The study of fossil bone microstructure is called paleohistology and it’s a new field that’s helped us learn a lot about long-extinct animals like dinosaurs. We know from this study that T rex grew as fast as modern warm-blooded animals like birds and mammals, and we know that the specimens were 13 and 15 years old when they died. T rex didn’t reach its adult size until it was about twenty, and there are definite differences in the morphology of the juvenile specimens compared to an adult. The young T rexes were built for speed and had sharper teeth to cut meat instead of crush through heavy bones the way adults could. This suggests that juvenile T rexes needed to outrun both predators and smaller prey.

In other fossil news, Llewelly sent me a link about a pterosaur tooth caught in a squid fossil. We know pterosaurs ate fish because paleontologists have found fossilized fish bones and scales in the stomach area of pterosaur remains, but now we know they also ate squid. The fossil was discovered in Bavaria in 2012 and is remarkably well preserved, especially considering how few squid fossils we have. One of the things preserved in the fossil is a sharp, slender tooth that matches that of a pterosaur. Researchers think the pterosaur misjudged the squid’s size and swooped down to grab it from the water, but the squid was about a foot long, or 30 cm, and would have been too heavy for the pterosaur to pick up. One of its teeth broke off and remained embedded in the squid’s mantle, where it remains to this day 150 million years later.

And speaking of squid, the giant squid’s genome has been sequenced. Researchers want to see if they can pinpoint how the giant squid became so large compared to most other cephalopods, but so far they haven’t figured this out. They’re also looking at ways that the giant squid differs from other cephalopods and from vertebrates, including humans, to better understand how vertebrates evolved. They have discovered a gene that seems to be unique to cephalopods that helps it produce iridescence.

The Richard J. who is my brother sent me an article about giant squid a while back. There’s a link in the show notes. It has some up-to-date photos from the last few years as well as some of the oldest ones known, and lots of interesting information about the discovery of giant squid.

The Richard J. who is not my brother also followed up after the magpies episode and asked about the magpie jay. He said that the white-throated magpie jay is his favorite bird, and now that I’ve looked at pictures of it, I see why.

There are two species of magpie jay, the black-throated and the white-throated, which are so closely related that they sometimes interbreed where their ranges overlap. They live in parts of Mexico and nearby countries. They look a little like blue jays, with blue feathers on the back and tail, white face and belly, and black markings. Both species also have a floofy crest of curved feathers that looks like something a parrot would wear. A stylish parrot. Like other corvids, it’s omnivorous. It’s also a big bird, almost two feet long including the long tail, or 56 cm.

In other bird news, Connor sent me an article about the range of the Carolina parakeet before it was driven to extinction. Researchers have narrowed down and refined the bird’s range by researching diaries, newspaper reports, and other sightings of the bird well back into the 16th century. It turns out that the two subspecies didn’t overlap much at all, and the ranges of both were much smaller than have been assumed. I put a copy of the map in the show notes, along with a link to the article.

One update about an insect comes from Lynnea, who wrote in after episode 160, about a couple of unusual bee species. Lynnea said that some bees do indeed spin cocoons. I’d go into more detail, but I have an entire episode planned about strange and interesting bees. My goal is to release it in August, so it won’t be long!

In mammal news, the platypus is on the brink of extinction now more than ever. Australia’s drought, which caused the horrible wildfires we talked about in January, is also causing problems for the platypus. The platypus is adapted to hunt underwater, and the drought has reduced the amount of water available in streams and rivers. Not only that, damming of waterways, introduced predators like foxes, fish traps that drown platypuses, and farming practices that destroy platypus burrows are making things even worse. If serious conservation efforts aren’t put into place quickly, it could go extinct sooner than estimated. Conservationists are working to get the platypus put on the endangered species list throughout Australia so it can be saved.

A Neandertal skeleton found in a cave in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan appears to be a deliberate burial in an area where many other burials were found in the 1950s. The new skeleton is probably more than 70,000 years old and is an older adult. It was overlooked during the 1950s excavation due to its location deep inside a fissure in the cave. The research team is studying the remains and the area where they were found to learn more about how Neandertals buried their dead. They also hope to recover DNA from the specimen.

Another Neandertal skeleton, this one from a woman who died between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago in what is now Siberia, has had her DNA sequenced and compared to other Neandertal DNA. From the genetic differences found, researchers think the Neandertals of the area lived in small groups of less than 60 individuals each. She was also more closely related to Neandertal remains found in Croatia than other remains found in Siberia, which suggests that the local population was replaced by populations that migrated into the area at some point.

Also, I have discovered that I’ve been pronouncing Denisovan wrong all this time. I know, shocker that I’d ever mispronounce a word.

Now for a lizard and a couple of corrections and additions to the recent Sirrush episode. Last year, Richard J. and I wrote back and forth about a few things regarding one of my older episodes. Specifically he asked for details about two lizards that I mentioned in episode 21. I promised to get back to him about them and then TOTALLY FORGOT. I found the email exchange while researching this episode and feel really bad now. But then I updated the episode 21 show notes with links to information about both of those lizards so now I feel slightly less guilty.

Richard specifically mentioned that the word sirrush, or rather mush-khush-shu, may mean something like “the splendor serpent.” I totally forgot to mention this in the episode even though it’s awesome and I love it.

One of the lizards Richard asked about was the afa lizard, which I talked about briefly in episode 21. Reportedly the lizard once lived in the marshes near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. Richard wanted to know more about that lizard because he wondered if it might be related to the sirrush legend, which is how we got to talking about the sirrush in the first place and which led to the sirrush episode. Well, Richard followed up with some information he had learned from a coworker who speaks Arabic. Afa apparently just means snake in Arabic, although of course there are different words for snake, and the word has different pronunciations in different dialects. He also mentioned that it’s not just the water monitor lizard that’s known to swim; other monitors do too, including the Nile monitor. I chased down the original article I used to research the afa and found it on Karl Shuker’s blog, and Shuker suggests also that the mysterious afa might be a species of monitor lizard, possibly one unknown to science. We can’t know for certain if the afa influenced the sirrush legend, but it’s neat to think about.

Next up, in cryptid news, Andrew Gable of the excellent Forgotten Darkness podcast suggested that some sightings of the White River Monster, which we talked about in episode 153, might have been an alligator—especially the discovery of tracks and crushed plants on the bank of a small island. This isn’t something I’d thought about or seen suggested anywhere, but it definitely makes sense. I highly recommend the Forgotten Darkness podcast and put a link in the show notes if you want to check it out.

And that leads us to a lake monster to finish up the episode. The Lagarfljót [LAH-gar-flote] worm is a monster from Iceland, which is said to live in the lake that gives it its name. The lake is a pretty big one, 16 miles long, or 25 km, and about a mile and a half wide at its widest, or 2.5 km. It’s 367 feet deep at its deepest spot, or 112 m. It’s fed by a river with the same name and by other rivers filled with runoff from glaciers, and the water is murky because it’s full of silt.

Sightings of the monster go back centuries, with the first sighting generally thought to be from 1345. Iceland kept a sort of yearbook of important events for centuries, which is pretty neat, so we have a lot of information about events from the 14th century on. An entry in the year 1345 talks about the sighting of a strange thing in the water. The thing looked like small islands or humps, but each hump was separated by hundreds of feet, or uh let’s say at least 60 meters. The same event was recorded in later years too.

There’s an old folktale about how the monster came to be, and I’m going to quote directly from an English translation of the story that was collected in 1862 and published in 1866. “A woman living on the banks of the Lagarfljót [River] once gave her daughter a gold ring; the girl would fain see herself in possession of more gold than this one ring, and asked her mother how she could turn the ornament to the best account. The other answered, ‘Put it under a heath-worm.’ This the damsel forthwith did, placing both worm and ring in her linen-basket, and keeping them there some days. But when she looked at the worm next, she found him so wonderfully grown and swollen out, that her basket was beginning to split to pieces. This frightened her so much that, catching up the basket, worm and ring, she flung them all into the river. After a long time this worm waxed wondrous large, and began to kill men and beasts that forded the river. Sometimes he stretched his head up on to the bank, and spouted forth a filthy and deadly poison from his mouth. No one knew how to put a stop to this calamity, until at last two Finns were induced to try to slay the snake. They flung themselves into the water, but soon came forth again, declaring that they had here a mighty fiend to deal with, and that neither could they kill the snake nor get the gold, for under the latter was a second monster twice as hard to vanquish as the first. But they contrived, however, to bind the snake with two fetters, one behind his breast-fin, the other at his tail; therefore the monster has no further power to do harm to man or beast; but it sometimes happens that he stretches his curved body above the water, which is always a sign of some coming distress, hunger, or hard times.”

The heath worm is a type of black slug, not a worm or snake at all, and it certainly won’t grow into a dragon no matter how much gold you give it. But obviously there’s something going on in the lake because there have been strange sightings right up to the present day. There’s even a video taken of what surely does look like a slow-moving serpentine creature just under the water’s surface. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the video.

So let’s talk about the video. It was taken in February of 2012 by a farmer who lives in the area. Unlike a lot of monster videos it really does look like there’s something swimming under the water. It looks like a slow-moving snake with a bulbous head, but it’s not clear how big it is. A researcher in Finland analyzed the video frame by frame and determined that although the serpentine figure under the water looks like it’s moving forward, it’s actually not. The appearance of forward movement is an optical illusion, and the researcher suggested there was a fish net or rope caught under the water and coated with ice, which was being moved by the current.

So in a way I guess a Finn finally slayed the monster after all.

But, of course, the video isn’t the only evidence of something in the lake. If those widely spaced humps in the water aren’t a monstrous lake serpent of some kind, what could they be?

One suggestion is that huge bubbles of methane occasionally rise from the lake’s bottom and get trapped under the surface ice in winter. The methane pushes against the ice until it breaks through, and since methane refracts light differently from ordinary air, it’s possible that it could cause an optical illusion from shore that makes it appear as though humps were rising out of the water. This actually fits with stories about the monster, which is supposed to spew poison and make the ground shake. Iceland is volcanically and geologically highly active, so earthquakes that cause poisonous methane to bubble up from below the lake are not uncommon.

Unfortunately, if something huge did once live in the lake, it would have died by now. In the early 2000s, several rivers in the area were dammed to produce hydroelectricity, and two glacial rivers were diverted to run into the lake. This initially made the lake deeper than it used to be, but has also increased how silty the water is. As a result, not as much light can penetrate deep into the water, which means not as many plants can live in the water, which means not as many small animals can survive by eating the plants, which means larger animals like fish don’t have enough small animals to eat. Therefore the ecosystem in the lake is starting to collapse. Some conservationists warn that the lake will silt up entirely within a century at the rate sand and dirt is being carried into it by the diverted rivers. I think the takeaway from this and episode 179 is that diverting rivers to flow into established lakes is probably not a good idea.

At the moment, though, the lake does look beautiful on the surface, so if you get a chance to visit, definitely go and take lots of pictures. You probably won’t see the Lagarfljót worm, but you never know.

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!


Episode 177: The Mush-khush-shu, AKA the Sirrush



This week we’ll look at an ancient mystery from the Middle East, a mythological dragon-like animal called the Mush-khush-shu, popularly known as the sirrush. Thanks to Richard J. for the suggestion!

The Ishtar Gate (left, a partial reconstruction of the gate in a Berlin museum; right, a painting of the gate as it would have looked):

The sirrush of the Ishtar Gate:

Two depictions of Silesaurus:

The desert monitor, best lizard:

Show transcript:

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

This week I have an interesting mystery animal suggested last September by Richard J. Thanks for the suggestion, Richard!

Before we learn about what the sirrush is, though, a quick note, or at least I’ll try to make it quick. I know a lot of people listen to Strange Animals as a fun escape from the everyday world, but right now the everyday world has important stuff going on that I can’t ignore. I want to make it clear to all my listeners that I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement, and I also support LGBTQ rights. Everyone in the whole world deserves respect and equality, but unfortunately right now we’re not there yet. We have to work for equality, all of us together.

If you’re not sure what to do to make the world a better place for everyone, it’s actually really simple. Just treat everyone the same way you want others to treat you and your friends. This sounds easy but when you meet someone who seems different from you it can be hard. If someone has different color skin from you, or speaks with an accent you find hard to understand, or uses an assistive device like a wheelchair, or if you just think someone looks or acts weird, it’s easy to treat that person different and even be rude, although you may not realize that’s what you’re doing at the time. When that happens, it’s always because you’re scared of the person’s differences. You have to consciously remind yourself that you’re being unreasonable and making that person’s day harder when it was probably already pretty hard, especially if everywhere they go, people treat them as someone who doesn’t fit in. Just treat them normally and both you and the other person will feel good at the end of the day.

So that’s that. I hope you think about this later even if right now you’re feeling irritated that I’m taking time out of my silly animal podcast to talk about it. Now, let’s find out what the sirrush is and why it’s such a mystery!

The sirrush is a word from ancient Sumerian, but it’s actually not the right term for this animal. The correct term is mush-khush-shu (mušḫuššu), but sirrush is way easier for me to pronounce. So we’ll go with sirrush, but be aware that that word is due to a mistranslation a hundred years ago and scholars don’t actually use it anymore.

My first introduction to the sirrush was when I was a kid and read the book Exotic Zoology by Willy Ley. Chapter four of that book is titled “The Sirrush of the Ishtar Gate,” and honestly this is about the best title for any chapter I can think of. But while Ley was a brilliant writer and researcher, the book was published in 1959. It’s definitely out of date now.

The sirrush is found throughout ancient Mesopotamian mythology. It usually looks like a snakelike animal with the front legs of a lion and the hind legs of an eagle. It’s sometimes depicted with small wings and a crest of some kind, sometimes horns and sometimes frills or even a little crown. And it goes back a long, long time, appearing in ancient Sumerian art some four thousand years ago.

But let’s back up a little and talk about Mesopotamia and the Ishtar Gate and so forth. If you’re like me, you’ve heard these names but only have a vague idea of what part of the world we’re talking about.

Mesopotamia refers to a region in western Asia and the Middle East, basically between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These days the countries of Iraq and Kuwait, parts of Turkey and Syria, and a little sliver of Iran are all within what was once called Mesopotamia. It’s part of what’s sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. The known history of this region goes back five thousand years in written history, but people have lived there much, much longer. Some 50,000 years ago humans migrated from Africa into the area, found it a really nice place to live, and settled there.

Parts of it are marshy but it’s overall a semi-arid climate, with desert to the north. People developed agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, including irrigation, but many cultures specialized in fishing or nomadic grazing of animals they domesticated, including sheep, goats, and camels. As the centuries passed, the cultures of the area became more and more sophisticated, with big cities, elaborate trade routes, and stupendous artwork.

That includes the Ishtar Gate, which was one of the entrances to Babylon, the capital city of the kingdom of Babylonia. The city grew along the banks of the Euphrates River until it was one of the largest cities in the world by about 1770 BCE. Probably a quarter million people lived there in its heyday around the sixth century BCE, but it was a huge and important city for hundreds of years. It’s located in what is now Iraq not far from Baghdad. Babylon is actually the source of the Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis. In that story, people decided to build a tower high enough to touch heaven, but God didn’t like that and caused the workers to all speak different languages and scattered them across the world. But that story may have grown from earlier stories from Mesopotamia, such as a Sumerian myth where a king asks the god Enki to restore a single language to all the people building an enormous ziggurat so the workers could communicate more easily.

Babylon means “gate of the gods,” and it did have many splendid gates in the massive walls surrounding the city. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reported there were a hundred of these gates. One of these was the Ishtar Gate, built around 575 BCE. This wasn’t like a garden gate but an imposing and important entry point to the city. For one thing, it was the starting point of a half-mile religious procession held at the new year, which was celebrated at the spring equinox. The gate was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and was more than 38 feet high, or 12 meters, and faced with glazed bricks. The background bricks were blue, with decorative motifs in orange and white, and there were rows of bas-relief lions, bulls, and sirrushes.

The sirrush was considered a sacred animal of both Babylon and its patron god, Marduk. It’s sometimes called a dragon in English, but from artwork that shows both Marduk and a sirrush, the sirrush was small, maybe the size of a big dog.

The question, of course, is whether the sirrush was based on a real animal or if it was an entirely mythical creature.

As I’ve said before in other episodes, every culture has stories that impart useful information—warnings, history lessons, and so forth. Every culture has monsters and mythological creatures of various kinds. That doesn’t mean those animals were ever thought of as real animals, although they might have taken on aspects of real animals. Think of it this way: You know the story of little red riding hood, right? Where the wolf meets the little girl on her way to Grandma’s house, then runs ahead and swallows the grandma whole and then tricks the little girl into coming close enough to swallow too? That story was never intended to be about a real, actual talking wolf but a warning to children to not talk to strangers. (There are plenty of other things going on in that story, but that’s the main takeaway.)

In other words, it’s quite likely that the sirrush was never meant to be anything but a creature of mythology, a glorious pet for a god. Then again, it’s also possible that it was based on a known creature, sort of like the talking wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is based on the real wolf that can’t talk.

And if that’s the case, what might that animal be?

There have been a lot of suggestions over the years. Willy Ley even suggested it was a modern dinosaur, possibly the mokele-mbembe. That was before the mokele-mbembe stories were widely recognized as hoaxes, as you may remember from way back in episode two. Other people have suggested it was an animal called a Silesaurus, which lived some 230 million years ago in what is now Poland.

Silesaurus grew up to around 7 ½ feet long, or 2.3 meters, and does kind of resemble the Ishtar Gate sirrush. It was slender and probably walked on all fours, with a long tail, long neck, and long legs. It had big eyes and probably mostly ate insects and other arthropods.

Silesaurus had traits found in dinosaurs but it wasn’t actually a dinosaur, although it belonged to a group of animals that were ancestral to dinosaurs. But it probably had one trait that puts it right out of the running to be the model for the sirrush, and that is that paleontologists think it had a beak. This wouldn’t have looked like a bird’s beak but more like a turtle’s, but it would have made the shape of the head very different from the snakelike head of the sirrush. Silesaurus probably pecked like a bird to grab insects. It also had stronger rear legs than front legs, as opposed to the sirrush that was depicted with birdlike rear legs but muscular lion-like front legs.

Silesaurus also lived 230 million years ago, so there’s just simply no way that it survived to modern times, no matter how much it superficially resembles the sirrush.

Ley also claims that the sirrush was the same dragon mentioned in the Bible, in a story called “Bel and the Dragon” in the extended Book of Daniel. Daniel slays the dragon by feeding it cakes made from hair and pitch. But there’s actually no connection between the sirrush and the dragon in this story.

One very specific detail of the sirrush is its forked tongue. This is a snakelike trait, of course, but some lizards also have forked tongues. Could the sirrush of mythology be based on a large lizard? For instance, a type of monitor lizard?

The largest monitor lizard species is the Komodo dragon, which can grow some ten feet long, or more than 3 meters. We talked about it in the Dragons episode a couple of years ago. But there are smaller, more common species that live throughout much of Africa, southern and southeastern Asia, and Australia. And that includes the Middle East.

The desert monitor was once fairly common throughout the Middle East, although it’s threatened now from habitat loss. It can grow up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and varies in color from light brown or grey to yellowish. Some have stripes or spots. It eats pretty much anything it can catch, and like many monitor species it’s a good swimmer. It hibernates in a burrow during the winter and also spends the hottest part of the day in its burrow. Like other monitor lizards it has a forked tongue and a flattish head. And it has a long tail, fairly long, strong legs, and a long neck.

If the sirrush was based on a real animal, it’s a good bet that that animal was the desert monitor. That doesn’t mean anyone thought the sirrush was a desert monitor or that we can point to the desert monitor and say, “Ah yes, the fabled sirrush, also called Mušḫuššu.” But people in Mesopotamia would have been familiar with this lizard, so a larger and more exaggerated version of it might have inspired artists and storytellers.

So…Boom! Looks like we solved that mystery. And we learned some history along the way. Definitely check the show notes for pictures of the Ishtar Gate, which has been partially reconstructed from bricks found in archaeological digs. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Also, the desert monitor is totally adorable.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 021: The Tatzelworm and friends



Episode 21 is all about the Tatzelworm, a mysterious reptile from the Alps, and some of its mystery reptile friends from around the world!

Further reading:

The Iraqi afa – a Middle Eastern mystery lizard

Giant Lizard Discovered in the Philippines

Bipes, a two-legged amphisbaenid from Mexico:

A cute little skink. Big eyes, little legs:

A handful of bigger baby skinks. OMG WANT

A modest-sized monitor lizard in a tree:

The newly discovered Northern Sierra Madre forest monitor, Varanus bitatawa:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to examine some mysterious reptiles. If you like this episode, there’s a companion episode for Patreon subscribers about the Beast of Busco, which you can access for a mere $1 pledge a month (just saying). But honestly, I’m just happy to have you as a listener no matter what.

Let’s start with a mystery animal that has intrigued me for a long time. A lot of cryptids are described as gigantic, or they live in far remote corners of the world. But the tatzelworm is a modest animal that lives in the Alps.

Generally, the tatzelworm is described as a sort of lizard with a snakelike body between one and three feet long [30 cm to 1 m], gray or whitish, with large bright eyes, a rounded head often described as catlike, and small forelegs. Sometimes it’s described as having no legs at all, only front legs, or the normal complement of four legs.

There have been a lot of sightings over the years, going back to at least the early 16th century. The earliest sightings are of tatzelworms seven feet long [2 m], which I’m inclined to put down as exaggerations over the years. The earliest documented sighting is from around 1711, when a man named Jean Tinner and his father spotted one on Frumsemberg Mountain, Switzerland. Tinner described it as coiled up on the ground, limbless, but with a catlike head. In 1779, a man named Hans Fuchs saw two of them, ran home in a panic and told his family, and promptly dropped dead of a heart attack.

The more recent sightings are of more reasonably sized animals. In 1921, a poacher and his friend hunting in the Alps in Austria saw a tatzelworm on a rock, watching them. It was gray, two or three feet long [61-92 cm] with two legs, a thick tail, and a catlike head. Its body was described as thick as a human arm and its head was fist-sized. The poacher shot at it but it jumped at the men and they ran.

In 1922, two sisters playing in the woods in St. Pankraz, Austria saw one crawling among some rocks. It was gray, a bit over a foot long [30 cm], and looked like a giant worm, but had a pair of paws behind its head.

The clearest and most reliable description we have comes from April 1929, when an Austrian teacher searching for a cave entrance spotted a tatzelworm. In his book The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn, Willey Ley quotes the teacher’s account, which I’ll read.

One note: Tempelmauer means temple wall. Karl Shuker indicates in his book The Beasts That Hide from Man that the teacher was climbing Mount Landsberg. I can’t find the original of the account; it’s undoubtedly in German, and since Ley was born in Berlin, he may have translated the account himself. There is a mountain called Landsberg in Austria with two peaks, called Grosser and Kleiner Landsberg respectively. Since the teacher mentions cliffs, it could be these are the structures referred to as temple walls by locals.

Anyway, here’s the account from Ley’s book, page 133:

“Well equipped, I started out on a spring morning and after a short climb I reached the top of the Tempelmauer. After a short rest between the cliffs I started to look for the entrance to the cave. Suddenly I saw a snake-like animal sprawled on the damp rotting foliage that covered the ground. Its skin was almost white, not covered with scales but smooth. Its head was flat and two very short feet on the fore-part of the body were visible. It did not move but kept staring at me with its remarkably large eyes. I know every one of our animals at first glance and knew that I faced the one that is unknown to science, the tatzelwurm. Excited, joyful, but at the same time somewhat fearful, I tried to grab the animal but I was too late. With the agility of a lizard the animal disappeared in a hole and all my efforts to find it were in vain. I am certain that it was not my imagination that let me see the animal but that I observed with a clear head.

“ ‘My’ tatzelwurm did not have large claws but short and atrophied-looking feet; his length did not exceed 40 or 45 centimeters [16-18 inches]. Most probably the tatzelwurm is a rare variety of salamander living in moist caves and coming only rarely to the light of day.”

The tatzelworm has many local names, including stollworm or stollenworm, springworm, and so forth. Tatzelworm is almost always translated as “clawed worm” online, but according to Ley it means a worm or snake with paws. Stollworm means cave worm, springworm means jumping worm, and stollenworm means hole worm. Worm in this instance means anything snakey or wormy, that kind of shape.

While the various local legends state that tatzelworms are aggressive, venomous, and attack local livestock, the actual sightings are all pretty innocuous. Tatzelworms aren’t out there eating people. In fact, they’re usually pretty hard done by when meeting humans. In the South Tyrol area of Italy, one winter a year or two prior to 1910, a farmer found a torpid tatzelworm in some hay, either asleep or hibernating. He killed it, of course, and noted that he saw green liquid seeping from its mouth after it was dead. He didn’t save the body.

That’s the problem with all these sightings. We need a body. In 1828, a peasant in Switzerland found a tatzelworm corpse in a dried-up marsh. He collected it, but before he could send it to be examined, crows ate it. He did eventually send the skeleton to Heidelberg, but it either never arrived or was lost when it got there.

In 1969, two naturalists supposedly found the skeleton of a lizard-like animal in the Alps, near Domodossola, Italy, but I can’t find any further information about it, so the skeleton was probably found to be nothing mysterious.

There have been hoaxes, of course. The photo of a snakelike skeleton with enormous clawed arms: hoax. At various times, stuffed specimens, dead animals, reptile skins, and photographs have been offered as proof of real tatzelworms, but every case has proved to either be a hoax or a misidentification of a known animal. The Alps are a huge mountain range some 750 miles long, crossing eight countries. They’re not as high as the Andes, Himalayas, or Rockies, but like those mountain ranges, they have plenty of unexplored, hard to reach areas. Plants and animals new to science are still occasionally found there, including a new species of viper only discovered in 2016.

At one point the Nature and Forestry departments in Austria insisted that the tatzelworm was just an otter, but locals naturally scoffed at this. They knew what otters looked like, and this was no otter.

The giant salamander hypothesis is a little more reasonable in that the tatzelworm does seem to like wet areas. In fact, in some parts of the Alps its appearance is said to be an omen of flooding. But if you listened to episode 14 about giant salamanders, you’ll probably agree with me that the tatzelworm doesn’t sound at all like those big guys.

There are other large salamanders that aren’t related to actual giant salamanders, and which are much more slender. Amphiumas are snakelike salamanders that live in water and have vestigial limbs, and the siren salamanders are eel-like with four limbs. The greater siren can even grow to almost three feet long [1 meter]. But those are only found in North America, and none of the known sightings of the tatzelworm seem to be describing an amphibian.

If you’ve listened to episode 10, about electric animals, you might remember the Mongolian death worm. In that episode, I suggested a new species of amphisbaenid might be responsible for reports of the death worm. There are over 180 species of amphisbaenians, most of them legless, but four species found in Mexico have tiny forelegs but no hind legs. It’s possible the tatzelworm is an unknown amphisbaenid. They’re burrowing reptiles, usually no longer than about six inches long [15 cm], that eat insects and earthworms. They resemble earthworms, for that matter, although they have scales. They move like a worm, too, sometimes called accordion-like movement, and can move backwards that way as well as forwards. Most species have blunt heads and blunt tails, so that it’s hard to tell which end is which, and since their eyes are tiny and almost invisible, that adds to the confusion.

But the tatzelworm’s eyes are frequently referred to in sightings as being large and bright, and no one could describe any amphisbaenid as cat-headed. It’s hard to tell where the head is at all.

A skink, on the other hand, might fit the description. Skinks are long, slender lizards with large eyes and somewhat rounded heads. Many species have no legs and most species with legs have very small ones. In 2012, a skink with a pair of tiny forelegs and no hind legs was discovered in Thailand, and the common burrowing skink from South Africa only has hind limbs.

Most skinks like to burrow. Some even dig elaborate tunnel networks. A skink will frequently come out to bask in the sun, but will flee to its burrow if disturbed. Skinks are generally bigger than amphisbaenids too. The Solomon Islands skink is over a foot long [30 cm] not even counting its tail. So it’s not out of the question that the tatzelworm might be a skink that can grow up to several feet long [1 m] and either has no hind limbs or quite small ones that are easily overlooked. Skinks with reduced limbs move like snakes, not like worms.

There is a genus of skink that has green blood, incidentally. Species of Prasinohaema live in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and their blood is green because of the massive amounts of biliverdin, a waste product of the digestive system that is toxic in large amounts. But these skinks are immune to the toxicity. Researchers think it may be a protection from blood-borne parasites like malaria, so since the Alps aren’t exactly a hotbed of tropical parasites, they can probably be ruled out. It’s neat, though. The blood still contains hemoglobin, which is what makes blood red, but there’s so much of the biliverdin that you can’t tell that there’s any red in there at all. In 2007, a green-blooded frog was found in Cambodia too.

There don’t seem to have been very many organized searchers for the tatzelworm. In the 1930s an expedition was sponsored by a Berlin magazine, but I couldn’t find any information about it. In 1997, cryptozoologist Ivan Mackerle led an expedition in the Austrian Alps without any luck. He also interviewed locals about the tatzelworm and discovered that only older residents knew about it, and he suggested it may be extinct. Since the expedition was only a week long, I think he might be jumping the gun a little bit.

By the way, if anyone is thinking of planning an expedition of their own, I am totally available to hunt for tatzelworms in the Alps if you want to buy me a plane ticket. I am not even kidding.

There are plenty of other mystery reptiles out there, of course. Take the so-called kumi lizard. In 1773, a Maori chief told Captain Cook about a huge lizard that lived in New Zealand. It grew 5 to 6 feet long and lived in trees, and while the Maori were afraid of it, they also hunted and ate it. In 1898, a Maori bushman in Arowhana, New Zealand reportedly saw a lizard five feet long [1.5 m]. It threated him, then retreated and climbed a tree. That was the last reported sighting of the kumi lizard, but some possible subfossil remains were found. In 1874, a partial lower jaw of an unknown lizard was found in a cave in central Otago. It’s possible that occasionally a crocodile monitor, which lives in New Guinea and can grow up to 13 feet long [4 m], might be carried by currents to New Zealand. On the other hand, that’s a 3,000 mile trip [4,800 km] over open ocean. It’s more plausible that there was once a monitor lizard or another type of large lizard native to new Zealand, but that it went extinct a few hundred years ago. It might even still be around.

In 2009, a new species of monitor lizard was discovered in the Philippines, even though the island where it was found is heavily populated and the lizard is more than six feet long [1.8 m]. It’s an arboreal species, living high in the treetops, and it mostly eats fruit. Local hunters knew about it, but scientists had no idea it existed until photographs made it online. A two-month search resulted in the discovery. (I would happily spend two months in the Alps looking for the tatzelworm. I read Heidi, like, so many times as a kid.)

In a book called The Marsh Arabs published in 1964, explorer Wilfred Thesiger mentions a huge lizard called the afa. Thesiger lived for some eight years among the Madan, a group of people from the marshlands around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They said that the afa lived in the marshes around the mouth of the Tigris in what is now Iraq. Unfortunately, not only did Thesiger not give any other information about the afa, the rivers have now been diverted away from the area. The marshes are now desert, the madan are long gone, and if the afa ever existed, it’s probably dead.

I was going to end the episode there, but that is way too depressing, so we’ll finish up with one more mystery reptile. The Milton lizard is a mystery from Kentucky in the United States. In July of 1975, Clarence Cable, co-manager of the Bluegrass Body Shop in Milton, Kentucky, saw a huge lizard behind some junked cars. His brother saw the lizard a few days later. Then Cable saw it again the next day. He threw a rock at it and it vanished into some brush, and that was the last anyone ever saw of it.

Cable said the lizard may have been as much as 15 feet long [4.6 m] with black and white stripes overlaid with speckles, and looked like a monitor lizard. That’s probably what it was, too. Monitor lizards are often kept as pets. If one escaped or was turned loose in the area, it would have survived all right until the weather turned too cold. So if you have a pet monitor lizard, keep it safe and warm, and don’t let it wander around in strange junkyards.

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 at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!