Some time ago, I investigated a mysterious, highly-venomous mini-snake named Karait – a memorable albeit short-lived, mongoose-slain character briefly included by Rudyard Kipling in his story 'Rikki-Tikki-Tavi', which was contained in the first of his two Jungle Book novels. Kipling never specified Karait's taxonomic identity. However, as I revealed in my extensive ShukerNature coverage (click here to read it), this dust-dwelling yet deadly snakeling may have been based upon the Indian saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus.
But that is not all. For it is nothing if not intriguing that a cryptozoological snake bearing a remarkable resemblance both morphologically and behaviourally to Kipling's Karait has been reported from New Mexico and Arizona in the southwestern USA, as brought to my attention recently by American herpetologist/cryptozoologist Chad Arment.
Known as the pichu-cuate – allegedly an Aztec name, in turn suggesting that knowledge of this snake dates back many centuries – it is described as being a tiny species of viper, no bigger or thicker than a normal lead pencil, bearing a pair of small horns above its eyes (supra-ocular), and is a nondescript grey dorsally, rose-pink ventrally, but more venomous than any other North American snake. Extremely rare but also inordinately aggressive, the pichu-cuate supposedly spends its time concealed in sand and dust, sometimes with just its triangular head visible, but will not hesitate to bite anything or anyone that touches it, whether deliberately or inadvertently, which almost invariably leads to its victim's exceedingly rapid, agonizing death. There are claims that people who have been bitten on the hand or a finger by a pichu-cuate have swiftly cut (or shot) off the wounded appendage in the desperate hope of saving their life by preventing this snake's highly virulent venom from travelling further into their body.
The only venomous snakes on record from New Mexico and Arizona are rattlesnakes and coral snakes, which certainly do not resemble the pichu-cuate. Moreover, the morphological and behavioural description presented above for the latter cryptozoological serpent does not match that of any snake species known to exist in these two U.S. states.
This diminutive but highly dangerous Karait-like snakeling was first brought to widespread attention by newspaper writer Charles Fletcher Lummis in his compilation book of traditional New Mexican lore The King of the Broncos (1897), in which he related how a young Mexican shepherd named Claudio was apparently bitten on the thumb by a pichu-cuate and was able to save his own life only by shooting off his thumb to prevent the snake's virulent, swift-acting venom from spreading into his body. Moreover, Lummis subsequently claimed to have personally encountered a pichu-cuate on three separate occasions, and on the first of these to have even killed it, whose body he then examined in detail. Regrettably, however, he didn't retain it afterwards for scientific scrutiny. Lummis described its colouration as leaden grey dorsally, matching the sand in which it had been hiding, but rosy-red ventrally, like a conch shell's aperture. Its tiny fangs were no more than one eighth of an inch long, but moveable, slotting into grooves in the roof of its mouth when not about to strike.
In his own book Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation (2004), Chad Arment devoted a chapter to the pichu-cuate, in which he documented Lummis's coverage of it. However, he pointed out that the name 'pichu-cuate' and variations of it are also used in the southwestern USA and Mexico non-specifically, for any snakes deemed by locals to be venomous (regardless of whether they actually are). Hence it is not applied exclusively to this one particular, cryptic serpent.
Equally, however, Lummis's mention of the latter's fangs slotting into grooves in the roof of its mouth when not striking is significant, because in North America the only front-fanged venomous snakes with fangs that can move are viperids, thereby eliminating elapids from consideration, as well as rear-fanged colubrids. Also informative is his mention of the pichu-cuate's supra-ocular horns, because as noted by Chad, only four known Latin American snakes possess them. Moreover, two of these, the sidewinder Crotalus cerastes and the eyelash viper Bothriechis schlegelii, can be instantly eliminated, because the former was well known to Lummis, and the latter is arboreal and too colourful. This leaves only the Mexican horned pit viper Ophyracus undulatus and the montane pit viper Porthidium melanurum. Of these two, the former provides the closer match morphologically, but geographically it is not known to exist anywhere near New Mexico or Arizona.
Consequently, Chad concluded his coverage of the pichu-cuate by pondering whether either O. undulatus previously exhibited a broader distribution range than it does today, extending into those two U.S. states, or a small, undescribed viper species formerly inhabited them, and may perhaps still do so today? The following details suggest that this might be true.
On 6 May 1984, in his regular 'New Mexican Scrapbook' column published by the El Paso Times, Marc Simmons recalled Lummis's documentation of the pichu-cuate almost a century earlier, and then added some very intriguing, modern-day information of his own. During his travels around New Mexico, Simmons had mentioned the pichu-cuate to various old-timers, but the name meant nothing to them. However, they did tell him about an enigmatic snake known to them as the nino de la tierra ('child of the earth') that sounded suspiciously similar to the pichu-cuate. For it is said to be a small but very deadly, vicious snake that buries itself in the sand, and fatally strikes anyone who sits or lies in that place. But that is not all.
A couple of years earlier, Simmons saw a friend who had been hiking in the rocky foothills of central New Mexico's Ortiz Mountains. The friend mentioned that in a dry arroyo (steep-sided gulley) he had encountered a small grey snake with a triangular head, which in spite of its diminutive size had given him such a chill that he'd instinctively backed away straight away. So perhaps the pichu-cuate (aka nino de la tierra?) is more than just a myth after all.
Lastly, there may be some further information concerning the perplexing pichu-cuate hidden away in the collection of photographs and artwork by Lummis that is preserved at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, California. Time, therefore, for some enterprising Californian cryptozoologist to seek an opportunity to examine them there?
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted exclusively from my new book Secret Snakes and Serpent Surprises, published by Chad Arment's own company, Coachwhip Publications. It can be obtained here at Amazon UK and here at Amazon USA. More information concerning it is available via its own dedicated page here on my official website.