engraving of a giant snake, from The Bestiarium of Aloys Zötl 1831-1887
1920s, Raymond L. Ditmars, Curator of Reptiles at New York's Bronx Zoo, offered
US $1000 to anyone who could provide conclusive evidence for the existence of a
snake measuring over 40 ft (12.2 m) long. The prize has never been claimed. Yet
there are many extraordinary eyewitness accounts on record asserting that
gargantuan serpents far greater in length than anything ever confirmed by
science are indeed a frightening reality in various regions of the world, as
demonstrated by the fascinating selection of examples documented here.
GIANT SERPENT OF CARTHAGE
AND OTHER OLD WORLD GOLIATHS
During the time
of Rome's First Punic War (264-241 BC) with Carthage (which lay near
present-day Tunis in Tunisia, North Africa), the Roman army, led by the
renowned general Marcus Atilius Regulus, was advancing on Carthage, having
reached the River Bagradas (aka Medjerda). As his battalions sought to cross
this river, however, an enormous snake rose up before them from the reed beds,
with great flattened head and glowing lantern-like eyes glaring malevolently at
them as they cowered back at the sight of this monstrous reptile. Coil after coil
in seemingly limitless extent emerged, and the soldiers estimated its vast
length to be at least 30 m!
colour engraving of a rock python, the likely identity of Carthage's
discretion may well be the better part of valour, Regulus's army retreated
further down the river bank, hoping to cross far away from its ophidian
guardian. And when they looked back, the giant snake had seemingly vanished.
Yet no sooner did they attempt to cross at this new location than, without
warning, the huge flattened head rose up from below the water surface and
seized a nearby soldier in its mighty jaws, enfolding and crushing his body in
its vice-like constricting coils, before mercilessly drowning him. And each
time another soldier tried to cross, this grisly scene was re-enacted.
In fury, Regulus
ordered his men to wheel forward and arm their siege ballistae – massive
catapults used for hurling immense rocks at fortresses. Missile after missile
was duly fired at the snake, bombarding it unceasingly until, wounded and
dazed, the huge creature finally began to retreat into the river. But before it
could submerge itself completely, a well-aimed rock hit it squarely between its
eyes, shattering its skull and killing outright this veritable leviathan of the
serpent world. Afterwards, the soldiers skinned its colossal body, and records preserved
from that time claim that its skin measured a tremendous 37 m. This stupendous
trophy and also the snake's formidable jaws were eventually brought back to Rome and placed on
display inside one of the temples on Capitol Hill. Here these spectacular relics
remained until 133 BC, when, towards the end of the Numantine War against the
Iberian Celts, they mysteriously disappeared, and were never reported again.
rock python, southern subspecies
that this Carthaginian mega-serpent's size had been recorded accurately, what
could it have been? A rock python Python sebae is the most popular
identity, but this species is not thought to have existed at any time in that particular
area of Africa. And even where it is known to
exist, no specimen even remotely as long as Regulus's antagonist has ever been
chronicled. The longest confirmed specimen, measuring 9.81 m, was shot in
school grounds at Bingerville, Ivory Coast, by Mrs Charles
Beart in 1932.
The same applies
to an astonishing report from tropical Africa featuring an
extremely reliable eyewitness. In 1959, an ostensibly immense python reared up
towards a helicopter passing overhead in Katanga (within what is
now the Democratic Congo), flown by the highly-acclaimed, much-decorated Belgian pilot and World War II flying ace Colonel Remy van
Lierde DFC** (1915-1990). A colleague on board actually managed to snap a photograph of the creature, and using the
size of background bushes and other topographical features in the photo as
scale determinants, van Lierde estimated that the python appeared to be around 15.5 m long – once again far
greater than any scientifically-confirmed specimen. An interview with van Lierde featured in an episode of the early 1980s UK television series 'Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World', and can currently be viewed here (the interview begins at around 7 min 12 sec into the video). Just in case it vanishes, however, here is a verbatim transcript of Van Lierde's testimony from that episode:
"So as we had a camera on board, I decided to make several passes over the hole where the snake was in, in able [sic] to let the man take a picture of it, and I made certainly between four and six passes right over the hole where the snake was in. By then I was already flying for 25 years, so I've a very good experience of measuring things. And I would say the snake I saw there was close to 50 foot, close to 50 feet - I don't know, you say 50 foot, or 50 feet? - but very close to, certainly."
gargantuan Katanga mystery
snake (Colonel Remy van Lierde)
southeast Asia, the world's longest species of snake is the reticulated python Python
reticulatus. Its current confirmed record-holder, measuring 10 m, was shot
on the north coast of Sulawesi (Celebes) in 1912, and was
accurately measured by civil engineers using a surveying tape. In summer 1907,
however, a dark cane-coloured python estimated at 70 ft (21.3 m) long had been
observed through binoculars swimming in the Celebes Sea by Third Officer S.
Clayton of the China Navigation Company's vessel Taiyuan.
SUCURIJU GIGANTE – SOUTH AMERICA'S
According to the
record books, South America's common or green anaconda Eunectes
murinus rarely exceeds 6.25 m. Yet there are numerous reports of specimens
far bigger than this. Indeed, such monsters even have their own local names, such
as the sucuriju gigante in Brazil and the camoodi
in Guyana. Sometimes they
are also said to bear a pair of horns on their head.
Fawcett – front cover depicting Fawcett's encounter with
a giant anaconda (Arrow Books)
Perhaps the most
(in)famous encounter with a purported sucuriju gigante occurred in 1907, when,
while leading an expedition through the Amazonian rainforest in Brazil's Acre State, the celebrated,
subsequently-lost explorer Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Fawcett shot a massive
anaconda as it began to emerge from the Rio Abuna and onto the bank. In his
book Exploration Fawcett, he claimed that as far as it was possible to
measure the body, a length of 13.7 m lay out of the water, with a further 5.2 m
still in it, yielding a total length of 18.9 m. Even though Fawcett was known
for his meticulous observations, this claim is nowadays viewed with scepticism
by many zoologists.
of Fawcett shooting the giant anaconda (source unknown to me)
On 22 May 1922 at around 3
pm, priest Father Victor Heinz witnessed a sucuriju gigante while
travelling home by canoe along the Amazon River from Obidos in Brazil's Pará State. He and his
petrified crew saw about 27.5 m away in midstream a huge snake, coiled up in
two rings, and they gazed in awe as it drifted passively downstream. Fr Heinz
estimated its visible length at just under 24.5 m, and stated that its body was
as thick as an oil drum.
Sucuriju gigante encountered by Father Heinz and his crew (William Rebsamen)
Moreover, on 29 October 1929 he encountered another specimen, this time
while he and his crew were travelling by river to Alenquer in Brazil's Pará State at around midnight. Approaching
them in the dark from the opposite direction, its eyes were so large and phosphorescent
that he initially mistook them for a pair of blue-green navigation lights on a
steamer! Happily, this monstrous serpent paid no attention to its terrified
of a giant anaconda coming ashore (William Rebsamen)
photograph depicts an alleged 40-45-m-long sucuriju gigante that according to
Tim Dinsdale's book The Leviathans (1966) was originally captured alive
on the banks of the Amazon and towed into Manaos by a river tug before being
subsequently dispatched via a round of machine-gun fire – but does the photo depict
a genuine giant anaconda, or just a well-executed hoax involving forced
perspective? The question remains unanswered.
Brazilian postcard from c.1932 depicting an alleged 40-45-m sucuriju gigante,
or a clever example of forced perspective?
is this second photo, snapped in 1948,
of a supposed 35-m (115-ft) sucuriju gigante, which reputedly came ashore and
hid in the old fortifications of Fort Abuna in western Brazil's Guaporé Territory before being
machine-gunned to death and pushed into the Abuna River.
sucuriju gigante floating dead in the Abuna River within Brazil's Guaporé Territory
More recently, on
19 August 1997, a veritable
behemoth of a snake, jet-black and supposedly almost 40 m long, reputedly
raided Nueva Tacna, a village near the Rio Napo in northern Peru. Its five eyewitnesses
were later interviewed by no less eminent a person than Jorge Samuel Chávez
Sibina, mayor of the Municipalidad Provincial de Maynas, who, in the company of
radio journalist Carlos Villareal, flew over the village and afterwards stated
that in his opinion: "There really is something to the villagers'
stories". Moreover, a track supposedly left behind by this goliath
measured about 488 m long and almost 10 m wide.
Illusive online photograph of a supposed giant black anaconda
The above photograph is one in a series from a project entitled 'Vietnam Army Caught the Giant Snake', created by Vietnam students in 2010, using toy tanks and other vehicles, and clearly in some photos toy soldiers too. The snake corpse may have been real, but was far smaller in reality than it seemed to be to those online viewers mistakenly assuming that the vehicles were real, full-sized ones; in short, the photos were clever optical illusions. Full details can be found here
on the Vietnamese site documenting this project. It has also been covered on the Snopes hoax-busting site.
How reliable are
such reports as those presented here? Obviously, human estimation of size,
especially when dealing with elongate, coiling objects like snakes, is far from
perfect, and much given to exaggeration. Preserved skins do not provide reliable
evidence for giant snakes either, because it has been ably demonstrated that
those obtained from heavy snakes like anacondas can be deliberately stretched
by as much as 30 per cent without causing much distortion to their markings.
also suggested that their great size could cause giant snakes to experience
problems in maintaining caudal blood pressure, and that they would need to
remain submerged in water for their immense weight to be effectively buoyed.
Furthermore, snake specialist Peter Pritchard has calculated that the maximum
length of a snake species is 1.5-2.5 times its shortest adult length – which
means that as small adult common anacondas measure 3-3.7 m long, the greatest
theoretical length for this species is only marginally above 9 m.
to garrison deserter John Browne's Affecting Narrative book from 1802,
depicting an 'ibibaboka' - clearly a grossly-exaggerated anaconda yet
supposedly encountered by him in 1799 on St Helena!
– a domain replete with reptilian giants - once offered little support for
serpent monsters. Traditionally, the largest species of fossil snake on record
has been North Africa's Gigantophis garstini, which existed
approximately 40 million years ago and was believed to measure more than 10 m
but not to exceed the minimum length needed to claim the Bronx Zoo's longstanding
prize. And then along came Titanoboa.
All speculation concerning
the impossibility (or at least the very considerable improbability) of giant
snakes suffered a major blow in 2009, when scientists announced that 28
specimens of a hitherto-unknown fossil snake of truly gargantuan proportions
had been discovered in the Cerrejón Formation within coal mines at La Guajira,
model of Titanoboa at the Smithsonian Institution (© Smithsonian
This new species,
which existed 58-60 million years ago, was christened Titanoboa
cerrejonensis. By comparing the sizes and shapes of the vertebrae of its
eight largest specimens to those of modern-day snakes, researchers confidently
estimated that the aptly-named Titanoboa had attained a maximum length
of 12-15 m, weighed around 1135 kg, and boasted a girth of about 1 m at its
body's thickest portion. Suddenly, giant snakes were a myth no longer – here
was indisputable evidence that at least one such species had genuinely existed.
So could there be
others too – still thriving in secluded swamps and rivers, their colossal forms
in flagrant disregard of what should or should not be possible according to the
laws of biophysics, lurking like primeval serpent dragons amid our planet's remotest,
shadow-infested realms? Perhaps one day a future Fawcett will uncover the truth
– provided, unlike Fawcett, he lives long enough to bring the required evidence
back home with him!
print of warrior Matsui Tamijiro battling a giant snake (Utagawa Kuniyoshi)
UPDATE - 17 September 2022
I have just been informed that some anonymous reader has reported this blog article of mine for allegedly containing shocking content! I wish to state categorically here and now that it does no such thing. The three photos of supposedly dead giant anacondas are all assuredly hoaxes (the two b/w ones, moreover, have been published in numerous books and articles down through the years, both in hard-copy physical format and digitally online), most especially the colour one, a known photographic hoax, all of which I've clearly stated in this article. It is a shame that some people have nothing better to do with their lives than failing to read articles accurately and thereby causing trouble for persons such as myself who have done nothing wrong.