Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Monday, 27 September 2010


Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio

What's in a name? Not a lot, it would seem, at least as far as cryptozoological reports are concerned. Take, for instance, the intriguing yet lately-forgotten controversy surrounding the mysterious 'serpent' killed by Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to the New World.

In his diary entry for 21 October 1492, Columbus reported killing and skinning a 'serpent' measuring almost 5 ft long that he had seen entering a lake on the Bahamian island which he later dubbed Isabela. Another of these 'serpents', of similar size, was killed at a different lake on that same island a day later, this time by Martin Alonso Pinzon - the captain of one of Columbus's ships, the Pinta.

Regrettably, the skin of Columbus's serpent does not appear to have been preserved, which is a great pity, bearing in mind that zoologists have never been able to identify its species. Indeed, for a long time the prevailing opinion was that the creature was not a snake at all, but was instead a giant iguana. Unfortunately, however, as pointed out by Florida State Museum's assistant curator, Bill Keegan, in a fascinating Schenectady Gazette report (12 October 1987) concerning this cryptozoological conundrum, the iguana identity is far from satisfactory.

Iguanas do not tend to enter lakes as a rule, and there was no fossil evidence for the erstwhile existence of such creatures on this island. Also, in his diary Columbus used the word 'lagartos' when referring to lizards, and 'culebra' for a snake, whereas he called the type of beast that he and Pinzon killed a 'sierpe' or serpent.

In bygone days, the word 'serpent' had a much broader meaning than its more limited present-day usage as an alternative name for a snake. Indeed, it was often utilised as a general term for anything large and reptilian - including big snakes, lizards...and crocodiles. However, the reason why a crocodile had never been offered as a candidate for the identity of Columbus's 'serpent' was that no physical evidence existed to suggest such animals had ever inhabited the Bahamas - until 1987, that is.

When Keegan led an archaeological expedition that year to Isabela, they examined the ruins of a village believed to have been visited by Columbus - and there they unearthed the left femur (thigh bone) of a crocodile. The bone was 3.5 in long, indicating that the entire crocodile had measured around 4 ft long. So despite the fact that there are no crocodiles here today, it would seem that in Columbus's time these reptiles did indeed exist on Isabela - and that one such creature had suffered a grim fate at the hands of this now-famous explorer.

1 comment:

  1. An iguana? My god, the things people will say to explain a mystery.