Snakes of all kinds are held in great horror by the natives of India, and they slay indiscriminately and ruthlessly all they come across, but this horror pales before the terror inspired even by the names of the bis-cobra and goh-sámp,—terror so great, that, if met with, the harmless animals are given the widest berth possible, and their destruction is never attempted. Though actual animals, they are virtually mythical, that is as regards the deadly properties assigned to them, and we easily recognise in them the originals of the flame-breathing dragon and deadly basilisk. The gaze of the bis-cobra is awful even from a distance and its bite is instant death; and if the goh-sámp breathes upon, or at you, you fall dead at once.
H.F. Hutchinson – Nature, 9 October 1879
In villages across the length and breadth of India even today, there remains tangible fear concerning a creature that may be small in size but is gargantuan in terms of the terror that the mere sight of it generates. Known most commonly as the bis-cobra, according to generations of fervently-believed native folklore and superstition this modest-sized Asian lizard has such a venomous bite that anyone so inflicted will die instantly. Needless to say, no species matching this description is known to science. Yet there is no doubt that the bis-cobra does exist. So what precisely is this noxious entity, and how can these contradictions be resolved?
The name 'bis-cobra' (or 'biscopra'), which is used most prevalently in western India, loosely translates as 'venomous cobra'. Bearing in mind that all cobras are venomous, this is a particularly direct, hard-hitting way of emphasising just how exceptionally toxic this animal is – or, to be more accurate, allegedly is.
I first read about the bis-cobra many years ago, when perusing a delightful, humorous book on Indian wildlife entitled The Tribes On My Frontier, published in 1904 and written by 'EHA' - the pen-name of Indian amateur naturalist and artist Edward Hamilton Aitken (1851-1909). His description of it summarises very succinctly the basic attributes of this mysterious reptile:
But of all the things in this earth that bite or sting, the palm belongs to the biscobra, a creature whose very name seems to indicate that it is twice as bad as the cobra. Though known by the terror of its name to natives and Europeans alike, it has never been described in the proceedings of any learned society, nor has it yet received a scientific name. In fact, it occupies much the same place in science as the sea-serpent, and accurate information regarding it is still a desideratum. The awful deadliness of its bite admits of no question, being supported by countless authentic instances; our own old ghorawalla [horse-keeper] was killed by one. The points on which evidence is required are – first, whether there is any such animal as the biscobra; second, whether, if it does exist, it is a snake with legs or a lizard without them. By inquiry among natives I have learned a few remarkable facts about it, as, for instance, that it has eight legs, and is a hybrid between a cobra and that gigantic lizard commonly miscalled an iguana [in India, 'iguana' is a term popularly misapplied to monitor lizards]; but last year a brood of them suddenly appeared in Dustypore, and I saw several. The first was killed by some of the bravest of my own men with stones, for it can spring four feet, and no one may approach it without hazard of life. Even when dead it is exceedingly dangerous, but, with my usual hardihood, I examined it. It was nine inches long, and in appearance like a pretty brownish lizard spotted with yellow. It has no trace of poison-fangs, but I was assured that an animal so deadly could dispense with these. If it simply spits at a man his fate is sealed.
After some effort, EHA finally managed to capture a bis-cobra alive in his own garden using a butterfly-net, much to the great consternation of his native butler, watching the proceedings from a considerable distance. He then kept it for a time as a pet, without suffering any adverse effects.
Pre-dating EHA's account by several decades, however, was a lengthy report on the bis-cobra by a Mr John Grant that featured in the inaugural volume of the Calcutta Journal of Natural History, published in 1840. In it, Grant referred to a specimen of a reputed bis-cobra specially captured for him to examine. Approximately 6 in long, it was attractively patterned with irregular streaks of small bead-like markings of alternating dark and light grey colour. Anxious to observe its lethal effect, Grant introduced a mouse into the glass container housing this lizard. But far from the mouse meeting a rapid demise, it fought spiritedly with the lizard for a short time, each biting the other, before the two combatants retreated to opposite sides of the container, neither of them appearing any worse for their savage encounter. So much for the bis-cobra's virulent venom.
In her book East of Suez (1901), Alice Perrin included an eventful incident in which a European living in India demonstrated dramatically but beyond any doubt that the bite of a bis-cobra was harmless. He achieved this by lifting a brown and yellow specimen out of a pot in which it had been trapped, and then, when it seized hold of his hand with its teeth, holding it up, still biting him, for all of his horror-stricken native helpers to witness. After anxiously waiting for a while to watch their doomed master's fully-anticipated demise, they finally dispersed when it became clear that he was totally unharmed. Perrin also documented an encounter with a tree-climbing bis-cobra, measuring about 14 in long.
Alice Perrin's book East of Suez, Speaking Tiger Books reprint, 2015 (© Speaking Tiger Books, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
EHA was not the only source of native lore claiming that the bis-cobra doesn't even have to bite in order for its venom to prove lethal. Several other writers have also alleged that it only has to spit a single drop onto someone's skin for its potency to prove instantaneously fatal, searing through the victim's skin, entering their bloodstream, and eliciting certain death. Indeed, in his book Indian Peepshow (1937), Henry Newman was even assured by a local man that if this dire lizard so much as spat at a tree (let alone a person), a hole would burn right through and the tree would die.
In parts of India outside the western zone where reports of the bis-cobra are most rife, this supposedly deadly beast is conflated with another mysterious but equally malign reptile called the hun khun. Likened to a small slow-moving lizard with a fat tail, much the same powers of venomous potency are attributed to it as to the bis-cobra, but even the blood of the hun khun is reportedly toxic, and its skin reputedly contains lethal poison glands.
As science knows of no species corresponding to the bis-cobra, how can this enigmatic lizard be explained? Down through the decades, several different zoological identities have been proposed for it. In their book Venomous Reptiles (1969), Sherman and Madge Minton proposed that the bis-cobra was the East Indian leopard gecko Eublepharis hardwickii, a small stout species with a noticeably thick tail. Of course, as this gecko (like all others) is wholly harmless, in order to accommodate its identification as the bis-cobra the latter's dread reputation as a highly venomous creature must necessarily be nothing more than native superstition and folklore. The Mintons identified the hun khun as the closely related fat-tailed or common leopard gecko E. macularius.
Henry Newman noted that in the hotter, drier parts of India, 'bis-cobra' was a term applied to a rarely-seen, fleet-footed species of grey lizard. And that in Eastern Bengal, it is an elusive crested lizard occasionally spied in gardens and on walls.
In his recently-updated two-volume encyclopaedia of cryptozoology, Mysterious Creatures (2013-14), George Eberhart noted the Mintons' view. He also speculated that an alternative explanation for the bis-cobra is that it is a non-existent composite beast, created by locals combining (and sometimes confusing) reports of venomous snakes with non-venomous lizards.
By far the most commonly-held view as to the bis-cobra's identity today, however, is one that, ironically, had originally been suggested by a number of authors more than a century ago. In his earlier-mentioned book, for instance, EHA recalled how his captured bis-cobra gradually grew larger until within a few weeks it had developed into an unmistakeable 'iguana' (in India, a commonly-used colloquial, albeit zoologically-inaccurate, name for a varanid or monitor lizard). He concluded dryly:
Some people would jump to the conclusion that it was a young iguana to begin with. My butler would endure the thumbscrew sooner.
Similarly, in his above-documented Calcutta Journal of Natural History report from 1840, John Grant concluded that the specimen which he had pitted against the mouse was nothing more than a young goshamp – a local name in present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal for the common Indian (Bengal) monitor Varanus bengalensis. This species is widely distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent, and whereas adults are mainly terrestrial, juveniles are more arboreal, thereby explaining reports of tree-climbing bis-cobras. Their spotted patterning also matches morphological descriptions of the bis-cobra.
Moreover, writing in Beast and Man in India (1891), John Lockwood Kipling stated:
The large lizard, varanus [sic] dracaena, which is perfectly innocuous, like all Indian lizards, is called the bis-cobra by some.
Varanus dracaena is a synonym of Varanus bengalensis. Kipling actually owned a pet specimen of this monitor species, and whenever he held it he was invariably warned of its supposed deadliness by native observers.
Monitors were also confidently identified as the bis-cobra by L.S.S. O'Malley in his book Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Sikkim (1917). In Eye in the Jungle (2006), acclaimed Tamil writer M. Krishnan affirmed that the dreaded bis-cobra has been shown by naturalists to be nothing more than young, harmless specimens of the common Indian monitor – a statement confirmed in the standard work on this varanid species, Walter Auffenberg's monograph The Bengal Monitor (1994). Today, therefore, the term 'bis-cobra' is treated merely as a synonym for the latter monitor.
The real bis-cobra - a juvenile common Indian monitor Varanus bengalensis (Jayendra Chiplunkar/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
All that remains to explain now are supposed cases (such as that of EHA's ghorawalla) in which a bite from a bis-cobra, i.e. a young Indian monitor lizard, caused a person's death. If such cases are indeed genuine, how are such deaths possible, bearing in mind that V. bengalensis is not venomous?
Various possibilities come to mind. For instance, in recent years it has been shown that certain varanids, notably the Komodo dragon V. komodoensis, do actually possess venom glands. Although the venom produced by them is not normally fatal to humans, someone exceptionally sensitive to it may conceivably suffer anaphylaxis in a manner comparable to the response of certain people to the venom in bee or wasp stings. And even if no venom is present, the bacteria present on the teeth of these lizards could readily infect a wound created by a bite from one, and thus induce septicaemia. Moreover, the superstitious fear generated by the bis-cobra may in itself be sufficient to bring about death by heart failure in someone bitten by a monitor lizard.
It may well be that isolated incidents involving one or more of these causes of death following a bite from a technically harmless lizard were sufficient to engender the tenacious myth of the lethal bis-cobra, especially among medically-untrained villagers. It would also explain the diversity of lizard species claimed by them to be the bis-cobra at one time or another. The ultimate result was a fascinatingly Frankensteinian creation of the deadliest lizard that never actually existed.
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted from my book The Menagerie of Marvels: A Third Compendium of Extraordinary Animals.