Artistic impression of the crowing crested cobra's coxcombed head and facial wattles, based upon eyewitness descriptions (© Dr Karl Shuker)
The legendary basilisk was originally described in Western folklore as resembling a relatively small, unspectacular serpent in basic form. Down through subsequent ages, however, reports of it changed during the endless retellings of myths until it eventually became much larger, and acquired a cockerel's coxcomb and wattles, as well as the ability to crow like a cockerel too. This marked the beginning of the basilisk's gradual transformation into a much more dramatic-looking yet equally fictitious monster – the cockatrice.
In Africa, however, there are many modern-day reports of a supposedly real yet still-unidentified species of snake that allegedly bears a very striking resemblance to this serpentine pre-cockatrice. It is called the crowing crested cobra.
INKHOMI – 'THE KILLER'
Judging from native and Western testimony, the crowing crested cobra has quite a sizeable distribution range, stretching northwards from Natal in South Africa to Lake Victoria and westwards to Zambia and Lake Tanganyika, but is common nowhere, is greatly feared everywhere, and is known by a rich variety of local names. Perhaps the most telling of these, however, is inkhomi – 'the killer' – on account of its infamous ferocity and deadly venom. Said to measure up to 20 ft long (thereby exceeding even the formidable king cobra Ophiophagus hannah), the crowing crested cobra ranges from buff-brown to greyish-black in body colouration, but its face is bright scarlet, and, despite its cobra appellation, it has no hood. Instead, this exceptional serpent reportedly bears a prominent bright-red crest resembling a forward-pointing coxcomb, and the male is also said to sport a pair of red facial wattles. Most astonishing of all, however, in further parallel to a cockerel this bizarre snake can reputedly give voice to a loud crowing cry.
Despite its great size, the crowing crested cobra is often claimed to be primarily arboreal, concealing itself on sturdy overhead branches in wait for an unsuspecting human or some other prey victim to pass underneath, whereupon the snake lunges downward at their head or face, injecting its lethal venom with a single devastating bite. According to veterinarian Dr Dennis A. Walker, however, specimens sighted in Zimbabwe lurk among kopjes (rocky hillocks) where they prey upon hyraxes.
Of course, such a bizarre, surreal serpent could be readily dismissed as imaginative native folklore – were it not for the disquieting fact that some evidence for its reality goes beyond local legend. In 1944, Dr J. Shircore of Karonga, Nyasaland (now Malawi), published a detailed description of what he claimed were the preserved bony skeleton of the fleshy coxcomb (to which scraps of red skin were still attached) and a portion of the neck (containing several vertebrae) from a crowing crested cobra, which he owned. In a second publication, he stated that some additional vertebrae, as well as two ribs, a piece of skin, and the tip of a coxcomb from two further specimens had also come to light, but the current whereabouts of these potentially significant remains is unknown. Having said that, any remains believed to be from a crowing crested cobra are highly prized by native snake worshippers and witch-doctors, so it is likely that this is where they would have eventually gone.
An alternative artistic representation of the crowing crested cobra's head, this restoration being influenced by typical hooded cobras (© Maureen Ashfield/Carl Marshall)
No less intriguing is a very noteworthy incident that took place in late May 1959 and which was subsequently documented by the eyewitness in question, a Mr John Knott of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Driving home from Binga in the Kariba area, he accidentally ran over a jet-black snake measuring roughly 6 ft long, mortally wounding it. Knott got out of his Land Rover to take a closer look, and was very surprised to discover that this snake bore a distinct crest upon its head that not only was perfectly symmetrical but also could be erected by way of five internal prop-like structures. Needless to say, no known species of snake possesses such a crest, so it was a great tragedy that Knott didn't collect the dying snake and submit it for scientific examination. In terms of basic structure, this mystery snake's crest is reminiscent of the expandable frill so famously sported by Australia's frilled lizard Chlamydosaurus kingii.
Scientists have been very sceptical of reports appertaining to the crowing crested cobra, and the most popular mainstream explanation offered is that sightings actually feature large black mambas Dendroaspis polylepis that have incompletely shed the skin on their head, leaving a tuft of unsloughed skin still attached. Yet although it is true that some supposedly crested snakes have indeed been proven to be mambas exhibiting unorthodox accoutrements of this type, such a solution singularly fails to explain the remains documented by Shircore, or the well-delineated, erectile, prop-supported crest borne by the snake that Knott injured.
As if Africa's crowing crested cobra were not extraordinary enough already, what makes it even more so is that it is not even unique. Remarkably, an extremely similar albeit much smaller counterpart has been reported from at least two major islands in the Caribbean too. While visiting Jamaica during the mid-1840s, Victorian naturalist Philip H. Gosse (1810-1888) documented several eyewitness encounters with crowing coxcomb-crested mystery snakes there and also on Hispaniola.
In 1829, for instance, a well-respected physician on Jamaica had observed the dead, slightly decomposed body of a 4-ft-long, thick-bodied snake, ochre in hue with black spots, that bore upon its head a pyramid-shaped helmet-like crest, lobed distally, and pale red in colour. According to the locals, this deceased specimen belonged to a species famed for its ability to crow like a cockerel and also fond of preying upon chickens.
Several years prior to Gosse's visit, Jamaican resident Jasper Cargill had personally observed just such a snake emerging from some fragments of limestone rock along a mountain road. And in March 1850, Cargill's son actually shot one while rambling with some other youths. Instead of taking it home straight away, however, he placed it for safekeeping inside a hollow tree while they continued rambling, but this took them so far away from the tree that they didn't return for the snake that day. And when one of the youths did go back to fetch it the following day, this zoologically priceless specimen had gone, presumably taken by rats during the night.
Gosse also learned via a friend on Hispaniola that a comparably predatory snake had lately been spied in Haiti. Possessing a coxcomb and bright red wattles, it would use its superficially rooster-like facial appearance and crowing ability to gain entrance into chicken coops without alarming their unsuspecting inmates.
SNAKES THAT ROAR, SHRIEK, AND MIAOW!
Quite apart from their coxcomb and wattles, the crowing crested cobra and its West Indian equivalents have received very short shrift from mainstream zoologists on account of their decidedly unsnake-like ability to crow. This is because snakes are famous for their apparently restricted vocal abilities, generally being deemed incapable of uttering more than a sibilant hiss due to their larynx lacking vocal cords. In reality, however, this widely-held assumption has been soundly disproved by a number of different species.
The most famous of these is the North American bull snake Pituophis melanoleucus. This sturdy species expels air from its lungs through its glottis and against its epiglottis with such force that it emits a loud bovine grunt (earning it its name) audible up to 100 ft away.
Equally, the king cobra emits deep growl-like hisses produced via pocket-like tracheal diverticula projecting out from its windpipe and acting as low-frequency resonance chambers. Moreover, contrary to another fondly-held tenet, that snakes are totally deaf and unable to hear airborne sounds, research has confirmed that snakes are actually more sensitive to airborne than groundborne sounds, and that the king cobra can definitely hear its own growls and those produced by others of its species.
Most remarkable of all, however, was the discovery made in 1980 by Philip Chapman from Bristol's City Museum while participating in a scientific exploration of Borneo's enormous Melinau limestone cave system, in Sarawak's Gunung Mulu National Park. While penetrating one particularly dark, deep cave, he suddenly heard an eerie yowling sound up ahead, like the miaowing of a large cat, but when he fearfully shone his torch in its direction, Philip and fellow team members were astonished to discover that the creature giving voice to these loud cries was not a cat at all – instead, it was a snake!
Coiled up on the cave floor, this miaowing serpent proved to be a Bornean cave racer Orthriophis taeniurus grabowskyi - a slender, blue-scaled, non-venomous elapid whose vocal prowess had never previously been witnessed or even suspected by scientists. But what purpose did it serve? Inside this lightless cave, these snakes prey upon fast-flying cave swiftlets, and possess an unerring ability to snatch them while they are actually in flight, but as they cannot see them, how do the snakes detect these small birds with such accuracy? The swiftlets navigate like bats, by listening to the echoes of their own shrill cries bouncing off the cave walls, so it is possible that the snakes emit their own cries either to mimic and thence lure the swiftlets within reach, or to disrupt their vital echo-location and thus disorient them.
Over the years, many reports of other snakes giving voice to shrieks, screams, and an assortment of bleats, chirps, and even bell-like chiming have also been documented, though these have yet to be scientifically confirmed. Nevertheless, there are already sufficient precedents that have been verified to render the alleged crowing abilities of the crowing crested cobra and kin far less implausible zoologically speaking than one might otherwise suppose. So could such an extravagantly-adorned, vocally-adept snake truly exist in Africa, with a more diminutive relative (once) native to the West Indies? Sadly, we may never know. Several opportunities to present tangible, physical remains from such creatures have been lost, and no fresh material appears to have been procured for some considerable time.
Consequently, if the very curious case of the crowing crested cobra is ever to be solved, perhaps science's best hope is for an intrepid herpetologist to pay a respectful visit to the domicile of the shaman from one of the many African tribes for whom such a snake remains a fully-fledged reality, and tactfully take note of whether his collection of ritualistic fetishes and other magical paraphernalia include the preserved remains of an ophidian coxcomb and some dried facial wattles. A veritable cockatrice might yet be revived amid the shadows of superstition and folklore – though whether that is such a good thing may be another matter entirely!
Engraving by Bohemian etcher Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677) depicting a cockatrice being attacked by a weasel wrapped in rue - its only mortal enemies, according to traditional folklore
For the most extensive documentation of the crowing crested cobra and other unexpectedly vocal snakes ever published, be sure to check out my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007). And for more information concerning basilisks and cockatrices as well as the crowing crested cobra, be equally sure to check out my latest book, Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013).