I went once to a certain place in Arabia, almost exactly opposite the city of Buto, to make inquiries concerning the winged serpents. On my arrival I saw the back-bones and ribs of serpents in such numbers as it is impossible to describe: of the ribs there were a multitude of heaps, some great, some small, some middle-sized. The place where the bones lie is at the entrance of a narrow gorge between steep mountains, where there open upon a spacious plain communicating with the great plain of Egypt. The story goes that with the spring the winged snakes come flying from Arabia towards Egypt, but are met in this gorge by the birds called ibises, who forbid their entrance and destroy them all. The Arabians assert, and the Egyptians also admit, that it is on account of the service thus rendered that the Egyptians hold the ibis in so much reverence.
Herodotus – The History, Book II
Despite its common name, the so-called flying snake Chrysopelea ornata of southeast Asia cannot actively fly. However, it is well known that this distinctive species can glide for up to 300 ft through the air by launching itself from a tree while simultaneously spreading its ribs and flattening its body, until its undersurface is concave, thereby transforming itself into a ribbon-shaped parachute.
Yet according to some remarkable reports filed away within the bulging archives of cryptozoology, there may be some currently-undescribed species of snake that are capable of true flight, i.e. achieved with the aid of wings or comparable means of active propulsion.
THE NAMIBIAN FLYING SNAKE
One such mystery beast is the supposed flying snake that has been reported not only by the native Namaqua people but also by a number of European eyewitnesses within the Namib Desert of southern Namibia. According to their generally consistent accounts, it has a brown or yellow body mottled with dark spots, an inflated neck, and a very large head bearing a pair of short backward-pointing horns - plus, very remarkably, a glowing 'torch' in the centre of its brow. Most astonishing of all, however, is the pair of membranous bat-like wings allegedly emerging from the sides of its neck or mouth.
Eyewitnesses have stated that this extraordinary snake launches itself from the summit of a high rocky ledge, then soars down to the ground, landing with an appreciable impact and producing scaly tracks in the dusty earth. In 1942, while tending sheep in the mountains at Keetmanshoop, teenager Michael Esterhuise threw a stone at what he had assumed to be a large monitor lizard lurking inside a rocky crack. When it emerged, however, it revealed itself to be a big snake with a pair of wing-like structures projecting from the sides of its mouth.
On a separate occasion, moreover, one of these serpents soared down towards Esterhuise after having launched itself from a rocky ledge. When it landed, hitting the ground with great force, Esterhuise fainted, and when he was later found (unharmed though still unconscious) by a search party, the snake had gone but its tracks remained. They were subsequently examined by no less celebrated a naturalist than Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer – curator of South Africa's East London Museum and immortalised zoologically as the discoverer of that famous 'living fossil' fish the coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae in 1938. In her opinion, these tracks, containing the clear impression of scales, were indeed consistent with the marks that a snake would make.
A South African television documentary by Angus Whitty Productions, entitled In Search of the Giant Flying Snake of Namibia and first broadcast in 1995, contained testimony from a number of alleged eyewitnesses, which provided estimates of this mystery serpent's total length that ranged from 9 ft to 15 ft. The programme also specially prepared and featured on-screen a detailed drawing of the latter snake's alleged appearance based upon such testimony.
Well worth noting is that Namibia is a former German colony, so it is not impossible that Teutonic legends of lightning snakes retold here by German settlers may have infiltrated and influenced native Namibian lore. However, such legends cannot leave physical, tangible tracks like those examined by Miss Courtenay-Latimer, so perhaps a real snake is indeed present but one whose appearance has been exaggerated or distorted in the telling due to shock by those who have unexpectedly encountered it.
If so, the Namibian flying snake may still be an undescribed species, but one that in reality merely sports a pair of extensible lateral membranes similar to those of the famous Asian gliding lizard Draco volans (though whether such structures would be sufficiently adept, aerodynamically, to bear so sizeable a snake through the air is another matter), plus a pair of horny projections resembling the 'eyebrow' horns of certain African vipers. As for its glowing 'torch', this may be nothing more mysterious than a highly-reflective patch of shining scales on its brow.
THE TL'IISH NAAT'A'I OR ARIZONA FLYING SNAKE
For a number of years, American cryptozoologist Nick Sucik has been investigating reports of an equally mystifying but even more obscure aerial anomaly of the serpentine kind - the tl'iish naat'a'í (pronounced 'kleesh-not-ahee' and translated as 'snake that flies'). Also known as the Arizona flying snake, apparently this bizarre reptile is a familiar creature there to the Navajo Nation, and to the Hopi Nation as well (who refer to it by names translating as 'sun snake'). They all describe it as being fundamentally serpentine in form, generally around 2 m long, and dull grey in colour (although sometimes said to have a red belly), but possessing a pair of retractable and virtually transparent wing-like membranes. These emerge from behind its head, run laterally along much of its body's length, can flap vigorously and very rapidly, and are thus used for active flight (rather than passive gliding) purposes.
Some eyewitnesses have stated that these membranes sparkle in the sun when illuminated at certain angles. They also claim that this mysterious reptile constructs a kind of nest from twigs, located along the sides of cliffs or among rocks; and that when airborne, its flying membranes make a hissing sound, likened by some witnesses to a passenger jet's noise when passing by overhead. Comparable reports have also emerged from both the Texas and the Mexican sides of the Rio Grande, including one sighting of an unusual snake-like entity flying amid a group of bats here that was videoed by a security camera at Lajitas, Texas, and can be viewed on YouTube. Sadly, the alleged serpent is only glimpsed briefly and even then not clearly. Some viewers have opined that it may itself have been a bat (albeit a much larger one) or even an owl, but Nick is not convinced by such identities.
The video can presently be accessed here on YouTube, where it was posted by a Gil Bartee on 26 June 2008. Sadly, however, the alleged serpent is only glimpsed very briefly (I assume that it is the entity appearing at 0:54 minutes into the video – Bartee provides no details), and even then not clearly. Some viewers have opined that it may itself have been a bat (albeit a much larger one) or even an owl, but Nick is not convinced by such identities.
On 10 November 2016, British cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead posted in Facebook's Cryptozoology Herpetological Research Group a hitherto-obscure newspaper article dealing principally with the afore-mentioned, long-known Asian flying snake Chrysopelea ornata, but whose final paragraph contained information that is definitely of cryptozoological interest. Published in the Oregonian on 15 March 1942, the paragraph in question reads as follows:
A western prototype [i.e. of Chrysopelea ornata] is reputed to exist somewhere in Southern Mexico, although snake experts have made many fruitless expeditions into the interior for living specimens.
Might this be a previously-unpublicised reference to the tl'iish naat'a'í? If so, however, it indicates that this mystery snake, or something comparable, exists further south in Mexico than the Rio Grande.
In 2004, Nick prepared a detailed paper documenting traditional folklore and contemporary sightings relating to the tl'iish naat'a'í, which could formerly be viewed online (at: http://www.azcentral.com/12news/pics/dragonsofthedine.pdf) but has now disappeared (happily, I downloaded a copy for my files while it was still online), and contains a number of fascinating eyewitness accounts of this truly extraordinary, zoologically-unknown snake.
EUROPEAN WINGED SNAKES
Remarkably, some intriguing but thoroughly mystifying, modern-day reports of aerial snakes have even been filed from Europe. For instance, one day during 1930 or 1931, the mother of André Mellira was preparing lunch in a hut deep within the forest at the mountain village of La Bollène-Vésubie, close to Nice, southern France, when she looked out of the window and saw what looked like a green snake with wings! Moreover, this amazing creature promptly flew down from the branches of a tree close by and landed upon the hut's window sill. When Mellira's mother cried out in fear and alarm, however, her unexpected winged visitor dived down into a bush and vanished. Intriguingly, there is a longstanding tradition of winged snakes inhabiting the southern Alps, but these have always been discounted by scientists as myths.
A 12-year-old Bulgarian girl called Hazel Göksu was walking towards a spring very near her home one summer evening in 1947 in order to fill two buckets with water. Suddenly, however, she noticed what initially looked like some branches lying on the path ahead, but as she drew nearer she realised that they were thin snakes. Black, grey, and white in colour, and 1-2 m long, they abruptly emitted a peculiar cry - and then launched themselves into the air, flying 2-3 m above the ground in a straight line to the spring, about 150 m away, before vanishing behind some trees. Hazel was so frightened by what she had seen that she ran back to her home immediately, and never visited the spring again alone.
A COUPLE OF REPTILIAN LONDON PECULIARS?
Perhaps the most unexpected flying snakes ever recorded from Europe, however, were reported even closer to home – West London. According to a correspondent writing as 'SB' in The Gentleman's Magazine on 20 April 1798, a truly remarkable animal was observed during early August 1776 just a few miles west of London:
The strange object was of the serpent kind: its size that of the largest common snake; and as well as it could be discovered from so transient a view of it, resembled it by a kind of grey mottled skin. The head of this extraordinary animal appeared about the size of a small woman's hand. It had a pair of short wings very forward on the body, near its head; and the length of the whole body was about two feet. Its flight was very gentle; it seemed too heavy to fly either fast or high; and its manner of flying was not in an horizontal attitude, but with its head considerably higher than the tail; so that it seemed continually labouring to ascend without ever being able to raise itself much higher than seven or eight feet from the ground.
This same magazine subsequently published a second, more recent report, by a correspondent signing only as 'JR' - describing a sighting by a friend of the same (or a very similar) flying snake encountered at 10.30 pm on 15 July 1797 on the road between Hammersmith and Hyde Park Corner:
The body was of a dark colour, about the thickness of the lower part of a man's arm, about two feet long. The wings were very short, and placed near the head. The head was raised above the body. It was not seven or eight feet from the ground. Being an animal of such uncommon description, I was particular in noticing the day of the month, and likewise being the day preceding a most dreadful storm of thunder and lightning.
If we are willing to accept that these reports are not outright hoaxes (worth noting, however, is that neither of the authors supplied their name), or bizarre exaggerations of some large insect like a damselfly or robber fly (both of which when in flight sometimes hold their body in a similar pose to that described for this winged serpent), or some abstruse example of 18th-Century political satire, we can only assume that the observers were not zoologically-informed, and had mistaken some other, less bizarre creature for a flying snake.
Indeed, this particular case reminds me of those occasions on which I have been asked to remove 'baby horned snakes' from neighbours' gardens during the summer, only to discover time and time again that they are actually the large, distinctive caterpillars of the great elephant hawk moth Deilephila elpenor. Having said that, however, and having read many times the authors' respective descriptions quoted above of what they allegedly saw, I still do not have even the slightest notion of what this enigmatic creature may have been!
EGYPT'S PLAGUE OF FLYING SERPENTS
Finally: no discussion of aerial snakes could be complete without considering the very curious case of Egypt's supposed plague of flying serpents.
In early times, small but highly venomous snakes of many different colours but all possessing membranous bat-like wings reputedly existed in Arabia, and congregated in great throngs upon the trees that produced the much-sought-after frankincense resin.
According to the celebrated Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.484–425 BC):
[The Arabians] gather frankincense by burning that storax [styrax resin] which Phoenicians carry to Hellas; they burn this and so get the frankincense; for the spice-bearing trees are guarded by small winged snakes of varied colour, many around each tree; these are the snakes that attack Egypt. Nothing except the smoke of storax will drive them away from the trees.
So numerous were they, in fact, that during their springtime migration from Arabia towards Egypt, the very air resounded with their incessant hissing and the unceasing beating of innumerable wings. Happily, however, Egypt's sacred ibises soon decimated these toxic ophidian locusts, devouring them in such vast quantities that none remained.
Many scholars believe that these winged wonders really were locusts, whose 'transformation' into snakes was due merely to exaggerated, elaborated retellings by successive storytellers down through the ages. Others claim that they really were snakes, but that their wings were either hearsay or fictitious additions purposefully supplied later by chroniclers anxious to enhance their tomes' dramatic content.
Whatever the explanation, it can be said with certainty that in spite of Herodotus's first-hand observation of what he claimed to be masses of piled-up skeletons of these creatures (see this present ShukerNature article's opening quotation), no such snakes exist in the Middle East today. Presumably, therefore, the skeletons seen by him were not from snakes at all (with no detailed description or illustrations of them to examine, it is impossible to know for sure) – or perhaps their macabre mode of reproduction explains their demise.
For according yet again to the writings of Herodotus (and those of several other ancient historians too), at the very height of passion the female Arabian winged snake would bite her unfortunate partner's head off, rather like a serpentine praying mantis. And when the young snakes developing inside her afterwards had attained the required size for emerging into outside world, they would gnaw their way out of their mother's body, chewing through her uterus and gut, thereby killing her in the process.
Consequently, even if such fanciful creatures really did exist at one time, cursed with such a deadly mode of reproduction and birth it is perhaps little wonder that Arabia's flying serpents became extinct!
Finally: just in case you may be wondering – I certainly haven't forgotten the extraordinary winged feathered snakes reported from various localities in Wales, as documented by me in my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings and also appearing on its front cover. The reason why they're not included above in this present ShukerNature article is that they've already been featured extensively in a previous one, devoted entirely to them – so please click here to access it.