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 16 April 2012


The Sarmatian Sea's antlered, paw-footed mega-snail, as depicted in Paré's book (colourised version)

Just when you think that the world, particularly the cryptozoological world, couldn't possibly get any stranger...

Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen – I am proud to present before you, all the way from the Sarmatian Sea, the one and only giant monster sea snail with antlers, and paws!

It's amazing what you find when looking for something completely different. Browsing through some early books recently in search of some relevant illustrations appertaining to mystery cats for my forthcoming second book on magical, mythological, and mysterious felids of many forms, I chanced upon the following astonishing beast from a medieval bestiary cum medical encyclopaedia entitled On Monsters and Marvels, written by Ambroise Paré, a 16th-Century French surgeon.

Citing as his source of information the twentieth volume of Cosmography - which had been authored by one of his contemporaries, André de Thévet (1516-1590), a French Franciscan priest who was also a celebrated writer, explorer, and cosmographer - Paré reported that the Sarmatian or Eastern Germanic Sea (both are early names for the Baltic Sea) is home to a truly monstrous species of sea snail.

As thick as a wine cask, this singular and very sizeable creature is instantly distinguished from all other such molluscs by virtue of its pair of deer-like antlers. These decidedly unsnail-like accoutrements are borne upon the upper region of its head, and at the tip of each branch on each antler is a small, round, lustrous bulb resembling a fine pearl. By contrast, this snail's eyes, which in less exotic gastropods can be found at the tips of a pair of optic tentacles, are laterally sited on its head, just like those of many vertebrates, and glow brightly like candles.

Paré's tale of a very strange snail! Has a creature like this ever truly inhabited the Baltic Sea?

Equally unexpected was Paré's claim that this very odd creature sports a roundish nose reminiscent of a cat's, complete with whisker-like hair all around it, plus a wide slit-like mouth beneath which hangs a fleshy projection of hideous appearance.

And as if antlers and a feline nose are not sufficiently bizarre characteristics for a sea snail (or, indeed, any other type of snail) to boast, eschewing the usual monopodial mode of locomotion common to normal gastropods this extraordinary marine mollusc possesses four fully-differentiated limbs, each with its own wide, hooked paw. It also sports a fairly lengthy tail, bearing a varicoloured tigerine pattern. Moreover, the image accompanying this morphological description in Paré's book shows the Sarmatian Sea's antlered mega-snail to bear a very large and sturdy, heavily annulated, whorled shell upon its back.

This remarkable creature apparently spends much of its time out at high sea on account of its timid nature, but is sufficiently amphibious to be able to venture forth onto the seashore during fine weather in order to graze upon any marine plant life present there. An edible species itself, its flesh is said to be very delicate and tasty to eat, and its blood reputedly has medical properties, ameliorating sufferers afflicted with leprosy.

Needless to say, no snail corresponding with the description communicated in turn by Paré from Thévet's work is known to modern-day science. So could the giant antlered snail of the Sarmatian Sea be as mythical as the web-footed camphurch unicorn, the mer-folk, the winged unipodal humanoids, and certain other unquestionably fabulous entities also documented by these authors, or is it merely a somewhat distorted description of some bona fide animal?

A beautiful colour plate from a 1904 tome by Ernst Haeckel depicting a varied selection of spectacular nudibranchs

Reading it through, I was reminded somewhat of the nudibranchs or sea slugs, many of which are extremely flamboyant in appearance, with all manner of ornate, plume-like embellishments known as cerata arising dorsally and laterally from their body, which may conceivably explain the 'limbs' and 'paws' reported for this creature. Nudibranchs also have a pair of long cephalic (head-borne) tentacles, and if a species existed whose tentacles bore projections they may resemble antlers. Moreover, the two eyes of nudibranchs are sited directly on their body, just behind the head, not on optic tentacles like those of snails, so a pair of laterally sited eyes would not be impossible. And nudibranchs are well documented from the Baltic Sea.

However, such an identity is instantly wrecked by the Sarmatian antlered snail's hefty shell, because nudibranchs are shell-less. In addition, all known nudibranchs are carnivorous, not herbivorous. And even the largest known nudibranchs do not exceed 2 ft long – a far cry from any gastropod as thick as a wine cask.

So what is the likeliest identity of this mystery mollusc? Might it possibly have been an unknown species that became extinct before modern-day science was ever able to confirm its reality and add it to the zoological catalogue of formally-recognised life-forms? Or could such an incredible creature as this never have been anything more than a wholly imaginary beast confined to the pages of early travelogues and compendia of monsters? To be, or not to be? That, indeed, is the question.

A splendid, wholly original representation of the Sarmatian Sea's antlered mystery snail by Avancna (click here to visit Avancna's page on DeviantArt's website)


  1. One of the most amazing beasts I've seen on this site, and surely the competition has been tough, hahaha! Thanks for sharing this poorly known mystery sir :)

  2. I believe that many features of this creature are obviously exagerrated, but if we take this as a second-hand account of a nudibranch with a few facts misconstrued, there is a possibility. Indeed, maybe this creature did once exist, though much more, well, plain. Who knows?

  3. A nudibranch is a possiblity, but there is another sea slug-like creature known as a sea hare (which has a very thin internal shell). It bears antler-like tentacles.

    As for the paw, the only think that comes to my mind is the operculum on conch snails in the Caribbean. As with all snails, this seals up the snail's shell when it retreats but it also helps them move across the sandy floor of the ocean. If you pick one up, they will swing their foot around kind of like a paw.

  4. Reading this for the 3rd time or so, I find myself wondering if it could be a giant sea turtle, seen when wet and perhaps in poor light. It's primarily the paws and the position of the eyes which make me think so. The antlers, jaw and whiskers could be some kind of seaweed caught on the head. I'm not familiar with seaweed species, but I recall that bladderwort looks particularly strange, not like any familiar plant at all. The shape of the shell is difficult to explain, though I note Paré's description doesn't mention a shell. I wonder if it was seen on a side-slope which the observers didn't recognize as such. This might explain the shell, and I think if the turtle was holding a piece of seaweed in its mouth on such a side-slope, that would better explain the antlers and jaw. But this all just occurred to me as I rebounded from a fit of depression, so don't take it too seriously.

    I went to look up the size of a wine cask, expecting it to be one of those funny names for specific sizes, but it turns out that it's as generic as "barrel", if not more so. The smallest standard English wine cask was the rundlet which contained about 68 litres, but did the same standard apply on the other side of the North Sea, decades before the English themselves settled on the Queen Anne wine gallon in 1707?

    I once saw a cask suitable for home brewing which was not more than an order of magnitude larger than the largest snail shells, but I don't think 17th century tradespeople would have wanted such a little container. Unless perhaps bottles were scarce... I don't know. :)