Crowing crested cobra

Illustration of a crowing crested cobra by Philippe Coudray in Guide des Animaux Cachés (2009).

Category Giant snake
Proposed scientific names
Other names Bubu, CCC, hongo, inkhomi, mwikoma, n'gôk-wiki, ngoshe, nsongwe, nyukanga, ondara, songo
Country reported Angola, Central African Republic, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe
First reported 1874
Prominent investigators • John Owen Shircore
Charles Pitman
Maurice Burton
Bernard Heuvelmans
Karl Shuker

Crowing crested cobras are cryptid snakes reported from several Central African nations,[1][2] particularly Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. Often compared to the mythical cockatrice, these alleged snakes are distinguished by their cockerel-like vocalisations and similarly galline crests or wattles, although both features do not always occur together. Reports of ordinary-looking snakes making crowing vocalisations are more common.[3]

Crowing crested cobras have also been reported from islands in the Caribbean[4] and China, where they are called jiguanshe.[5] A crowing snake, the vivimi gata, is also reported from Polynesia, but it is not described as crested.

Attestations

The first information on the crowing crested cobra may have been recorded by the explorer David Livingstone (1813 – 1873), whose journals, edited by his friend Horace Waller (1833 – 1896), were published posthumously as The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1874). Waller's epilogue contains two references relating to crowing and crested snakes, described as two distinct species. Waller briefly referred to a species of snake which was "well authenticated" to utter "a cry, much like the crowing of a young cock." One of Livingstone's servants, Abdullah Susi (died 1891), also described a type of mamba (Dendroaspis sp.) with crest-like markings on its head, known to Africans and Arabs alike in what is now Mozambique and Tanzania.[3][6]

Susi, to whom this snake is known in the Shupanga tongue as "Bubu," describes it as about twelve feet long, dark in colour, of a dirty blue under the belly, with red markings like the wattles of a cock on the head. The Arabs go so far as to say that it is known to oppose the passage of a caravan at times. Twisting its tail round a branch, it will strike one man after another in the head with fatal certainty. Their remedy is to fill a pot with boiling water, which is put on the head and carried under the tree! The snake dashes his head into this and is killed—the story is given for what it is worth.

In his own journals, Livingstone also referred to a type of highly venomous mamba as a "little yellow basilisk," although he later crossed out the word "basilisk".[7]

Another missionary, Bishop Chauncy Maples (1852 – 1895) of Nyasaland (now Malawi), also described the crowing crested cobra, in a letter sent on 17 March 1881, and published posthumously by his sister in 1897. Like Susi, Maples described the snake as a type of mamba, known locally as the mwikoma.[8]

The chief facts about the "mamba" are these: it deliberately pursues and attacks man, lying in wait for him; its bite is most deadly, and in a very few hours its victim is dead. It is about twelve feet long, and has a kind of crest like a cock's comb on its head; it also makes a noise resembling the crowing of a cock; it haunts rocks, and is also found in the forest. If one is ever met with near one of the paths, that path is at once deserted, and with no undue reason, for this snake is known to oppose whole caravans, killing, one after another, all who attempt to pass by the tree or other position where it may have for the time taken up its quarters. This "mamba" is by no means uncommon about here, and the hill near where Mr. Porter's house stands is its favourite haunt.

Early accounts of the Rhodesian crowing crested cobra appeared in the press in 1922,[9] and in 1929, herpetologist Arthur Loveridge (1891 – 1980) travelled to East Africa in search of the crowing crested cobra and several other "rare specimens".[10][11] Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, reports of the crowing crested cobra appeared frequently in the Rhodesian[12] and Nyasaland[13] press. In 1940, a man who died at Namwala of a snakebite supposedly had his cause of death recorded as "Supernatural Causes," after local people claimed that he had been bitten by a nyukanga, described as an enormous arboreal reptile with a red gullet and a habit of crowing like a cock.[12] At the same time, discussion on the possibility of vocalising snakes was carried on in The Times of London, with arguments from Maurice Burton, Captain Tracy Philipps, Alleyne Leechman, Jan Koens, J. P. L. James, Sir Hector Duff, G. E. Davies, and David Freeman.[3] Burton subsequently defended the alleged vocalisations, though not the reality, of the crowing crested cobra in his book Animal Legends (1957).[1][14]

In 1944, colonial physician John Owen Shircore (1882 – 1953) who was then working in Nyasaland, sent two detailed notes on the crowing crested cobra to the Royal African Society, which subsequently published them as a single paper in the journal African Affairs. According to Shircore, who had been collecting information on the subject for thirty-five years, the snake ranged across East Africa, from the Lower Zambezi in the south to Lake Victoria in the north, and Northern Rhodesia in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east; it was called songo in Chiyao, inkhomi ("the killer") in Chinkhonde, ngoshe in Chiwemba, kovoko in Kinyamwezi, and hongo in Chingindo. According to Shircore, although the forest-dwelling version was greatly feared, and was killed by means of a pot of steaming porridge carried on the head, in villages the crowing crested cobra lived in harmony with man. However, specimens were killed for use in rituals. Shircore also believed that Bishop Maples had claimed to have heard the crowing crested cobra for himself near the Ruvuma River, during the early 1880s.[15]

A correspondent of Bernard Heuvelmans, veterinarian Dennis A. Walker, sent a description of the crowing crested cobra of Zimbabwe to Heuvelmans in 1959. According to Walker:[1]

The African crested snake is one of those things that everyone knows, but few have seen. [...] A Batonka, Tsomeka, told me he had seen one twice, while he was hunting elephant (quite illegally) in the Zambezi. Once he had seen one on a baobab tree, and hadn't bothered to examine it; the other time the snake was among rocks on a kopje.

Herpetologist Walter Rose (1884 – 1963) profiled the crowing crested cobra in his book The Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern Africa (1962). Most of Rose's information came from an unnamed correspondent in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), who gave identical information to Dennis Walker. Rose's informant had been showing his African servant a book of snakes, and was asked if he had a picture of "the snake with the cock's comb and wattles"; when he denied the existence of such a snake, the servant told him that he had once seen an enormous snake with a red comb and wattles while hunting in the M'toko Mountains. Rose felt that belief in the snake had originated in Angola, and he had received information on a wattled snake, the ondara, from a German correspondent in nearby South West Africa (now Namibia).[16]

Allegedly, a man named Arthur Connerton also collected accounts of the crowing crested cobra in 1965.[17] While travelling in the Congo Basin, Charles Cordier received a description of a large crested snake, this one said to be both arboreal and aquatic, from his men, which he published in 1973.[1][18]

[...] an aquatic snake at least fifteen metres long, which can be seen stretched out on one or two trees along a bank. It has a red crest on its head. Two of my men told me that they had eaten one recently, and that its flesh was pink, not white like that of other snakes.

The entomologist Thomas Nash (1905 – 1993) received a description of the crowing crested cobra in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1927–1932, which was not published until 1984. Desriptions given by local people varied, but the account which he regarded as the most memorable gave it a cock's comb.[19]

Abdullah, my father, killed the snake and saw its cock's comb. Truly he was a brave man, my father. Often he would tell the tale of how he passed along the path frequented by this terrible snake, with a bowl of steaming porridge on his head: how the snake had suddenly shot its great head out of its hole, high up in a dead tree, and had struck at his head: how the jaws plunged into the scalding porridge and the snake dropped onto the path, writhing and twisting in its last death agony.

Description

The crowing crested cobra is described as a large snake, with figures given including 6' or 7',[20] 12',[6][8] 15',[1][16] and, in the Congo, 50'[18] Despite its name, it does not have a cobra-like hood,[3] and it is said to resemble a mamba more than any other snake; earlier accounts identified it as a species of mamba.[6][8] Its general colour is described conflictingly: dark with a dirty blue underside,[6] uniformly grey or brown,[1][16] or buff-coloured.[15] Crowing crested cobras are often described as having ornamentation on their heads, usually a crest. This is always said to be red, and is usually described as a crest like a "cock's comb," which, according to Shircore, is like the crest of a guineafowl, but pointing forwards; however, this ornamentation has alternatively been described as "red markings like the wattles of a cock,"[6] "a red gullet,"[12] "a movable crest on its head,"[17] and "a cock's comb on its neck ... absolutely symmetrical ... erected by means of five internal props or something".[20] Red wattles or lobes are also sometimes described;[15][16][17] according to Shircore, these are possessed only by the male crowing crested cobra.[15] Its eyes are said to be very large.[1][16]

Its other distinguishing characteristic is its rooster-like call. This vocalisation is usually described as resembling the crowing of a rooster: "a cry, much like the crowing of a young cock,"[6] "a noise resembling the crowing of a cock,"[8] "a cheeping not unlike that of a baby chicken and a sibilant whistle,"[16] or "like a cockerel".[21] The call has been written as "chu-chu-chu-chu,"[15] and, according to Shircore, the female also clucks ("te-te-te-te").[15] Despite its alleged size, it reputedly has arboreal habits,[15] living in the branches of trees such as baobabs (Adansonia sp.), from which it ambushes people, and on rocky kopjes.[1][16] In the Congo Basin, it is also said to be semiaquatic, being found in trees near riverbanks.[18] In Zimbabwe, it is believed to prey on hyraces,[1][16] while in Malawi, it was said to kill animals, leave their bodies to rot, then return later to feed on the maggots.[15] It is widely feared for its alleged powerful venom,[1][16] and, in a story from Namibia, merely touching its skin can cause a rash.[16]

Physical evidence

Specimens

In his notes to the Royal African Society, John Shircore claimed to have obtained two sets of crowing crested cobra specimens in Nyasaland. The first specimens, obtained from a local witch-doctor who had mutilated the remains, were composed of several neck vertebrae and part of the comb, with scraps of red skin still attached. The second set of specimens included more vertebrae, two ribs, a piece of skin, and the tip of a comb. Shircore was planning on having the specimens examined by a zoologist,[15] but their current whereabouts are unknown.[3][22]

Its skeleton consists of a thin lanceolate plate of bone (one and a half inches by half an inch wide, at its broadest part) with a markedly rounded smooth ridge one-eighth of an inch wide, slightly overhanging both sides of the upper border, with a distinct voluted curve to the left. The lower border is sharp-edged and faintly ridged. The lateral surfaces are concave, throughout the long diameter. The whole fragment is eminently constructed for the insertion and attachment of muscles, much the same as the structure of the breast-bone of a bird. Some skin, part of which spreads smoothly above the plate, on one side, is red in colour: and attached to the lower angle is a dark wrinkled bit, which appears to be a remnant of head skin, all of which would be valuable for purposes of identification. A small portion of bone, tapering towards both ends, a half-inch long by one-eighth of an inch wide, is missing from the lower anterior border, including the tip—it was broken off for use in medicine by the witch doctor, from whom the specimens were obtained.
[...]
Since my previous note, on the Crowing Crested Cobra, specimens have been obtained from two other examples. One lot, from the smaller snake, consists of five lumbar vertebrae, which are 7 mm. long by 5 mm. wide, with the concave facet, for articulation with the body of the adjacent bone, 2 mm. by 3 mm. in diameter, from above downwards, and side to side, respectively: a piece of skin 10 mm. by 8 mm.: two ribs 26 mm. in length on the curve: the skin-tip of the crest, 6 mm. long by 3 mm. wide at the base, flattened from side to side, and having a granular surface.
The other snake, which is reputed to have killed a man, must have been gigantic. It provides a single dorsal vertebra, from which however almost all the processes, and part of the body—originally 22 mm. long by 16 mm. wide—were removed for compounding medicines and talismans. The fragment is a massice piece of bone, and fortunately, the cup-like articulating surface, of which the diameters are 8 mm. by 9 mm., and the depth 4 mm., is intact.

Sightings

1910

Walter Rose's German correspondent heard that a wattled snake called the ondara had been killed at Groenfontein, in South West Africa, in 1910, although he was unable to verify the story. According to the German...[16]

One was killed in Groenfontein in 1910 they say. The head was supposed to be like a turkey's with red lobes. The Bushmen refused to skin the animal, so the farmer had to do the work himself, but he broke out in a terrible rash over his neck and chest and had to go to hospital. I am trying to find out whether the story is true, but a great many of the people concerned are dead, so my efforts to get to the bottom of the story have so far been in vain.

~1940s

Betty Matthews, who settled in Nyasaland in 1947, recorded that an African machilaman named Madamat claimed to have seen a crowing crested cobra near their home in the Shire Highlands, not far from the Shire River and Port Herald (now Nsanje). According to her account in Reflections of Nyasaland & Malawi (2005)...[21]

[...] Madamat met the nsongwe – the "crowing, crested cobra" which no white man has ever seen. Madamat was walking up one night to keep guard on the verandah, when the snake crossed his path. He arrived looking paler than I have ever seen any African – and shaking. It had, he said, a "red hat" (comb) and crowed like a cockerel! Next day, he took me to see the place where it had appeared. There were marks on the sand and a branch was broken in the tree into which it had vanished.

1959

A notable alleged observation of a crowing crested cobra occurred in May 1959 in Zimbabwe, where a settler named John Knott claimed to have ran over a crested snake in his car. He published his account in the magazine African Wild Life, in response to an article identifying the crowing crested cobra as a normal snake seen in the act of shedding.[3][20]

At the end of May, 1959 I was returning from Binga (Kariba area) and ran over a snake which definitely had a "cock's comb".
I would appreciate it if you would put the following description on record for future reference.
The length of the snake was between 6 and 7 feet, the diameter of the body about 3 1/2 inches, colour jet black, the head, more like that of a tortoise than of any snake I have ever seen; the belly, a light dirty grey. The most interesting point, however, was the distinct "cock's comb" on its neck. It was no collection of unshed skin. The "comb" was absolutely symmetrical and was obviously erected by means of five internal props or something.
After having run over the snake I reversed to have a look at it and sat in the Land Rover for at least two minutes studying it. All that time it just lay there with about two feet of its body raised off the ground at an angle of about 45 degrees swaying from side to side.
On questioning the natives in that area (Batonga) they told me that it was the "crowing snake". This I do not believe as I doubt if any snake can utter a sound, but I do agree that it is the one the natives call the crowing snake.

Theories

Crowing crested cobras have often been identified with the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), a dangerous arboreal snake (Source).

Horned vipers, such as the rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis), could have contributed to the crowing crested cobra's description (Source).

Game warden Captain Charles Pitman argued that the crowing crested cobra was a composite, inspired by several different snakes. In Kawambwa, he was told that the Gabon viper (Bitis gabonica), a venomous horned snake, was a "crested snake which crows". He believed that the red colouration may have been taken from the horned, strikingly-coloured rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis), which is also venomous. Pitman also found that inhabitants of the Barotse Valley attributed a crest and crowing vocalisation to the venomous black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), which is not horned, but is arboreal. According to museum worker Donald G. Broadley, old black mambas sometimes fail to shed correctly, resulting in pieces of shed skin becoming attached to their necks, making them appear to be crested. Several crested snakes which have been killed or captured have been identified as black mambas suffering in this manner.[3] Bernard Heuvelmans agreed with Pitman that the crowing crested cobra was likely a composite animal, an African myth inspired by encounters with oddly-vocalising snakes, combined with the fear of dangerous horned snakes.[1]

Reports by Europeans such as Shircore and Knott are harder to explain, and Karl Shuker argues that, if their accounts are to be trusted, the crowing crested cobra would appear to be real, and morphologically distinct from other snakes, as tufts of shed skin could not explain the crests reported by these men. Shuker observes that the structure described by Knott was more like the frill of the frilled lizard (Chlamydosaurus kingii) of Australia than anything known in snakes.[3]

As snakes have no vocal cords, the possibility of their vocalising is controversial, although other vocal animals such as fishes and songbirds also lack vocal cords.[1][3] Allegations of crowing, but uncrested, snakes in Africa have been determined to have several origins. According to Pitman, an unnamed naturalist in Africa who came across a vocalising snake discovered that it had swallowed a live toad, which was responsible for the noise.[23] Ornithologist James Paul Chapin (1889 – 1964) discovered that a cry attributed by locals to the crowing crested cobra had been made by the pygmy rufous-headed rail (Sarathura elegans).[24] A pre-dawn cry regularly heard at Kandaga by Thomas Nash, transcribed by him as "Prr! Prr! Prr! Kwa! Kwa! – Kwa! – Kwar! Kwar! – Kwarr! — Kwaa! — Kwaa!," which Nash's servants claimed was the crowing crested cobra, turned out to be a tree hyrax (Dendrohyrax sp.), an animal notorious for its distinctive shriek.[19] However, reports of vocalising snakes go beyond Africa, and Maurice Burton, Bernard Heuvelmans, and Karl Shuker conclude that the possibility of snake vocalisation is not unlikely.[14][1][3]

In popular culture

  • The crowing crested cobra, referred to as the "chicken snake," was the subject of a short story by P. M. Rigby, Snake Country, published in The London Mystery Selection (1963).

Notes and references

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 Heuvelmans, Bernard (1978) Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique, Plon, ISBN 978-2259003872
  2. Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Shuker, Karl P. N. (1991) Extraordinary Animals Worldwide, Robert Hale, ISBN 07090-44216
  4. Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
  5. Xu, David C. (2018) Mystery Creatures of China: The Complete Cryptozoological Guide, Coachwhip Publications, ISBN 978-1616464301
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Livingstone, David & Waller, Horace (1874) The Last Journals of David Livingstone, Vol. 2
  7. Livingstone, David & Schapera, Isaac (1960) Livingstone's Private Journals, 1851-1853
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Cook, Ellen (1897) Chauncy Maples: Pioneer Missionary in East Central Africa
  9. "Ruled By Snakes," The Journal (21 July 1922)
  10. "Search for Snake That Crows," The World's News (27 November 1929)
  11. Loveridge, Arthur (1953) I Drank the Zambezi
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 "Crowing Crested Cobra," The Northern Rhodesia Journal, Vol. 1 (1950)
  13. Jacobs, Nancy J. (2016) Birders of Africa: History of a Network
  14. 14.0 14.1 Burton, Maurice (1957) Animal Legends
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 15.8 Shircore, J. O. "Two Notes on the Crowing Crested Cobra," African Affairs, Vol. 43, No. 173 (October 1944)
  16. 16.00 16.01 16.02 16.03 16.04 16.05 16.06 16.07 16.08 16.09 16.10 Rose, Walter (1962) The Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern Africa
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 "The Jungle Still Has Secrets," Elizabethan, Vol. 19 (1966)
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Cordier, Charles "Animaux Inconnus au Congo," Zoo, No. 38 (April 1973)
  19. 19.0 19.1 Nash, Thomas (1984) A Zoo Without Bars: Life in the East African Bush, 1927-1932
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Knott, John "Crowing Snake," African Wild Life, No. 16 (September 1962)
  21. 21.0 21.1 Scarborough, Ann & McLinden, Derek (2005) Reflections of Nyasaland & Malawi: More Expatriate Recollections
  22. Freeman, Richard (2019) Adventures in Cryptozoology: Hunting for Yetis, Mongolian Deathworms and Other Not-So-Mythical Monsters, Mango, ISBN 9781642500165
  23. Pitman, Charles (1942) A Game Warden Takes Stock
  24. Collins, William Bernard (1959) The Perpetual Forest
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.