|A beautiful colour plate from 1884 depicting a varied selection of caterpillars - hairy and otherwise!|
|If it were real, could the gooseberry wife look something like this?|
|Pine processionary caterpillars Thaumetopea pityocampa photographed in their typical single-file procession (Elveoflight/Wikipedia)|
No less intriguing, or perplexing, is the following report, which appeared in London's Observer newspaper during January 1852:
"In the Algerian paper we read that a hairy viper was seen a few days ago near Drariah, coiled round a tree. It resembled an enormous caterpillar, and was of a brownish-red colour; its length was about twenty-two inches. The moment it saw that it was observed, it glided into the brushwood, and all attempts to discover it were unavailing. The authorities of the Museum of Natural History of Paris have sent off orders to their agents in Algiers to get a specimen of this viper."
Orders or no orders, their agents clearly failed in their appointed task, because no-one seems to have heard anything more about Algeria's uniquely hirsute vipers. Interestingly, Central Africa is home to an unusual species known as the hairy bush viper Atheris hispida on account of its extremely keeled scales, whose long spiny projections give it a bristly, almost hairy appearance, but no such snake is known from North Africa.
|Hairy bush viper (Soulsurvivor08/Flickr)|
Perhaps, therefore - always assuming that it did truly exist in the first place - it was actually either an enormous caterpillar or a caterpillar procession, the latter identity clearly being much more likely. After all, if it were indeed a single caterpillar, estimates of its size had obviously been greatly exaggerated.
At least I hope so - because any butterfly or moth metamorphosing from a 22-in-long caterpillar would be a fearsome sight to behold! Something more akin, in fact, to a Wonderland caterpillar of Lewis Carrollian creation than anything expected from Algeria, or even, for that matter, from the Isle of Wight.