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).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Sunday 26 January 2014


One of the four potoo photos discussed in this ShukerNature post (photo source unknown to me / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Facebook never disappoints me as a rich source of the exceedingly weird but also very wonderful when it comes to the animal world, and yesterday was no exception. During its early hours, I was browsing the recent posts of various FB friends when I came upon a quartet of photographs depicting a truly remarkable- (and macabre-) looking bird, equipped with a disproportionately huge mouth as well as large, unearthly black eyes. One of those four pictures opens this ShukerNature post, but here below are all four of them. Despite a prolonged internet search, I have been unable to uncover the identity of the person who snapped them.

The potoo photo quartet (photos' source unknown to me / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

They had been posted by FB friend Michael J. Smith, who hoped that the bird portrayed in them was genuine, and I was happy to report that indeed it was.

The taxonomic order Caprimulgiformes contains five families, whose members are generally nocturnal and insectivorous. These families are:

Caprimulgidae (the nightjars, whip-poor-wills, and night hawks – of Old World and New World distribution)
Podargidae (the frogmouths – exclusively Old World)
Aegothelidae (the owlet-nightjars – exclusively Old World; and sometimes split off into an order of their own, Aegotheliformes)
Steatornithidae (the single species of oilbird – exclusively New World)
Nyctibiidae (the potoos – exclusively New World)

Looking at the four photos, I readily recognised the bird to be a potoo. True, there is a superficial similarity to the frogmouths, but having recently seen and photographed a living specimen of Australia's tawny frogmouth Podargus strigoides at very close range, I could tell the difference straight away.

Tawny frogmouth (© Dr Karl Shuker)

As a good rule of thumb, whereas both bird types have strikingly large mouths, those of potoos are much bigger than their beaks whereas those of frogmouths are much the same size as theirs. And as can be seen from the photo quartet, the bird depicted in them had a very small beak in proportion to its mouth.

Eager to discover the history of these photos, I spent some time searching for details online, but little could be found. They had apparently first attracted significant online interest just a couple of days earlier, when posted on the Reddit website, and had subsequently appeared on many others worldwide. However, I discovered that they had initially appeared much earlier, having traced one site that featured them in October 2013 and another that had featured them even further back, in mid-April 2013. On a Vietnamese website that I consulted (click here), it stated that the bird had allegedly been captured on the outskirts of a rural Venezuelan town, which if true provides further support for a potoo identity.

Judging from the comments on a range of other websites that I accessed, however, there has apparently been much wild speculation among non-ornithologists concerning the nature of this bird. Some contributors have voiced the opinion that it is an alien creature, or even a demonic entity, and others that it is an effigy or a taxiderm gaff (presumably one with a beak capable of opening and closing, judging from the differences in beak appearance present in the photos!) created specifically to fool or horrify its observers.

The common potoo (© Steve Gantlett/Guatemala International Birdwatching Encounter / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

In reality, however, comparing the photos with confirmed potoo images online swiftly vindicated my opinion that it is merely a potoo, most probably the common potoo Nyctibius griseus (based upon both morphological and zoogeographical correspondence)

So is the mystery of the bird with the monstrously large mouth solved? Not quite. There is still the disconcerting matter of its uniformly black eyes to consider. This is because in the eyes of potoos, the black pupil is normally prominently ringed by a wide gold-coloured iris.

Potoo showing normal eye appearance (Barnorama / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Having said that, when I did a Google image search of photos depicting the eyes of potoos (click here), I discovered quite a few photos of specimens with entirely black eyes. So how can this puzzling discrepancy be explained?

Could it be merely a lighting effect – the eyes appearing dark when viewed in subdued light? Bearing in mind that all potoos are nocturnal, it is more probable, however, that the pupil can dilate sufficiently in subdued light to obscure the gold iris encircling it.

Judging from the range of eye states represented in the photos thrown up in the above-mentioned Google image search, I suspect that the latter hypothesis is the correct one, but if anyone out there can offer further information, I'd greatly welcome details here.

Epilogue: on 26 January 2014, Steve Caffyn in FB's Monster Talk group offered a thought-provoking third theory:

"I think some (maybe many) bird species' eye colours change with age. My own African Grey parrot Gizmo's eyes were entirely black as a baby. Then his iris changed to white after the first year and now he is eight the iris will go increasingly yellow with age."

Finally: if you think that potoos look somewhat ghoulish, just wait until you hear what they sound like! Click here for the eldritch utterances of a great potoo Nyctibius grandis.

Potoo showing very restricted gold iris and very dilated black pupil (Barnorama / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Thursday 23 January 2014


Caribbean Treasure (© Viking Press)

There are several species of fish familiar to the tropical freshwater aquarist that are virtually transparent. These include the x-ray fish Pristella maxillaris (a species of tetra), the glass catfish Kryptopterus bicirrhis, and the ghost catfish K. minor. But what about an entirely transparent, invisible fish?

Glass catfishes Kryptopterus bicirrhis (TomCatX/Wikipedia)

By definition, no-one has ever seen such a creature, because if they have done, it can't have been invisible – or can it? During my cryptozoological researches, I uncovered a very intriguing account of an allegedly invisible species of catfish, encountered and reported first-hand by a well known zoologist. As will be revealed here, however, upon further investigation it turned out to be something far removed indeed from its original description.


Serendipity plays a not-inconsiderable part in cryptozoology, at least in my experience, because as has happened on a number of occasions, I came upon this particular case while investigating a totally separate one. The latter, unrelated case had been brought to my attention by Gerald L. Wood, the author of all three editions of the exhaustively-researched, still-definitive book on zoological superlatives, The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats, and who was also a longstanding friend of mine. In a letter to me of 1 July 1990 that referred to a number of different mystery animals, Gerald included the following brief but tantalising enquiry:

"Do you know anything about a new species of fish that can make itself invisible? Discovered near coral reefs off the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean this mysterious creature turns from black to grey before ‘vanishing’! Apparently a pair sell for £15,000."

I had certainly never heard of it before, but knowing Gerald well, I had no doubt that this was a serious request on his part, not a joke; if he was asking me for information concerning such a fish, then he definitely believed that it existed. So I promised him that I'd look into it, and get back to him with any news that I may find. Tragically, however, this was not to be, because only a short time later Gerald died suddenly. And despite my efforts, I never did succeed in adding any details to those scant ones supplied by him.

Of course, this episode took place several years before the internet became an unrivalled source of instantly-accessible information. More recently, therefore, after recalling Gerald's invisible mystery fish and re-reading his letter referring to it, I pursued it again, but this time online, to see if anyone else had ever reported such a remarkable creature. Sadly, however, I still failed to elicit any information concerning it, but during my internet researches I did learn about what sounded like a bona fide invisible catfish, indigenous to a specific freshwater cave pool on the West Indian island of Trinidad.


My source of information was a passage of text from a book entitled Caribbean Treasure, first published in 1939 (many thanks to correspondent Cameron A. McCormick for kindly providing me with a copy of the relevant passage). It was written by Ivan T. Sanderson (1911-1973) - a Scottish-born American zoologist who was also an animal collector, zoo founder, prolific nature-travel writer, and notable television personality in the States (in many ways, therefore, a direct counterpart to Britain's own Gerald Durrell).

Line drawing of Caecorhamdia urichi

As related by Sanderson in his book, he had been conducting a field trip to Trinidad's Northern Range when he was informed by his local guides that a certain pool at the foot of the first vertical drop of Oropuche (aka Cumaca) Cave was the only known habitat of a rare, unique species of catfish that was so colourless and transparent that it could only be detected by observing its shadow passing across the bottom of the pool. Sanderson identified this elusive species as 'Caecorhandia urcihi' [sic – should be Caecorhamdia urichi], and stated that it was totally blind. Due to its invisible nature, no specimen of this catfish was captured by Sanderson or his helpers, even when using a torch beam in the hope of illuminating it somehow.

That, at least, was Sanderson's claim concerning this species. The reality, however, as I discovered when seeking out more information regarding it, is very different indeed. It was first brought to scientific attention in July 1924, when Trinidad-born naturalist Friederick W. Urich sent a specimen to London's Natural History Museum. After studying it, in October 1926 museum ichthyologist John R. Norman formally described and named its species Caecorhamdia urichi, in honour of Urich.

During the mid-1950s, six additional specimens were collected in its cave pool by Prof. Julian S. Kenny, the foremost expert on Trinidadian freshwater fishes at that time. After studying them in aquaria maintained at his home, Prof. Kenny concluded that they did not constitute a valid species in its own right but were merely a cave-dwelling (troglobite) variety of Rhamdia quelen – a species of three-barbelled catfish common in rivers throughout Trinidad.

Moreover, these six specimens varied greatly in colour, from dark grey-charcoal to pale pinkish-white. Yet all were readily visible, being quite thick in shape (as opposed to the extremely thin, flattened shape that one would expect for a reputedly transparent fish), and had therefore been easily captured. And whereas the pale specimens were indeed eyeless, the darker ones possessed small but well-formed eyes. Clearly, therefore, Sanderson's description of this catfish form was incorrect on a number of crucial counts. In addition, I remain baffled at how anything supposedly invisible by being totally transparent is able to cast a shadow anyway.

In April 1966, the plot thickened even further, when Dr G.F. Mees, a catfish expert from the Netherlands, tried to catch some specimens in their cave pool. In contrast to Kenny's experience, they proved very difficult to capture, and when he finally did procure three specimens, Dr Mees was surprised to discover that two of these were normal-coloured eyed specimens of R. quelen, and the third, although eyeless, was also normal-coloured.

Rhamdia quelen

In October 2000, Dr Aldemaro Romero and Joel E. Creswell published a short article in National Speleological Society News concerning this fish and their January 2000 visit to its pool, where they observed dozens of specimens. Not one of them, however, was eyeless or of pale, depigmented colouration. On the contrary, their eyes each uniquely appeared to possess a tapetum lucidum, making them flash when illuminated by torchlight. Romero and Creswell concluded that although there may well have originally been pale, eyeless specimens here, they were probably rendered extinct following an influx of normal-coloured eyed specimens from a stream that had invaded their cave.

There is a notable precedent for this hypothesis. A population of the Mexican cave tetra Astyanax mexicanus was documented in 1983 that had originally consisted of pale eyeless specimens, but these had been wiped out in under 50 years following an influx of normal-coloured eyed specimens from a river close by.

Today, C. urichi is treated merely as a synonym of R. quelen, and the allegedly invisible nature of its former representatives as claimed by Sanderson (in what was ultimately dismissed by critics as an exercise in 'creative description') has been wholly disproved. A sad but perhaps fitting conclusion to this remarkable case – an invisible catfish that was not invisible at all in real terms, but was finally rendered so via taxonomy.


No coverage of invisible fishes could be complete without mentioning the infamous Brazilian invisible fish. Once a staple exhibit at any travelling sideshow or display of curiosities, it was generally housed within a large water-filled goldfish bowl, and the viewing public were invited to peer closely at the bowl in case they could discern this highly elusive and rare species. Some observers couldn't spy it, which is not really surprising, because there was nothing whatsoever in the bowl except for the water!

The Brazilian invisible fish was, of course, a hoax. It first attracted notable attention when Harry Reichenbach (1882-1931), an American publicist, used this scam in order to attract potential customers to a poor woman's restaurant, by placing the bowl and a big sign advertising it in the store's window.

Amazingly, however, there would always be those who were adamant that they had definitely seen something move inside the bowl - and sometimes that was actually true. This was because Reichenbach would strategically place a small electric fan out of sight but near enough to the bowl to create a faintly visible ripple passing through the water). All of which goes to prove that just as there are none so blind as those who do not want to see, equally there are none so perceptive as those who do want to see. A noteworthy cryptozoological caveat?

Beware the Brazilian invisible fish (© http://news.3yen.com/2009-12-29/is-transparent-sushi-next/brazilian-invisible-fish/)

This ShukerNature article is excerpted exclusively from my forthcoming book The Menagerie of Marvels: A Third Compendium of Extraordinary Animals, to be published later this year by CFZ Press.

Saturday 11 January 2014


A monstrous discovery? (©  Alan E. Friswell)

The internet is the natural home of some very unnatural creatures – fakes, frauds, and the falsely identified. Many of them attract only fleeting, transient attention before being soundly exposed and permanently discredited. However, there is also a hardcore set whose members simply refuse to die – being revived time and time again by unsuspecting novice researchers who are bewitched by their superficial strangeness and fail to realise that their faux nature has been unveiled on numerous previous occasions. So here, in no particular order, are ten of the most noteworthy (and notorious) examples, all of which I have investigated at one time or another and have either personally exposed the truth behind them or have discovered who else has done so.


(© Crawley Creatures / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

And where better to begin than with this extremely striking photograph? As can be seen, it portrays someone holding what appears on first sight to be a recently-dead eurypterid or sea scorpion, which, if genuine, would be an astonishing discovery, bearing in mind that the most recent confirmed specimens died out during the Permian-Triassic mass extinction approximately 252 million years ago. I have seen the following report accompanying this photo on several Facebook group and individual pages, but its earliest online appearance seems to be on the Paranormal Geeks Radio website on 13 April 2013. Here's the report:

"In 1971 farmer Ted Litton caught this weird animal alive in his artificial pond in Lilac, TX, & got his pic in the paper. 8 hours later his farm was besieged by Army soldiers wearing decontamination suits. They drained the pond, leaving an odd, spheroid cavity in the bottom. Litton says the Army dismissed his beast as a freak of nature yet they confiscated it, promising him 5 grand (which never materialized).”

Needless to say, however, as I discovered when subjecting this photograph to a Google Image search, the reality soon proved to be very different. In fact, the eurypterid was a prop, an animatronic model, to be precise, produced for the BBC television series Sea Monsters (2003) by the award-winning special-effects design company Crawley Creatures, based in the UK. Here is a link to their website that shows this exact-same photograph:


As for the eurypterid model, it represents the Ordovician genus Megalograptus, which is one of the earliest eurypterids on record.


(© Kevin Richardson / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Since the beginning of October 2013, the above photograph has been circulating widely online, appearing not only in a number of Facebook groups but also on a wide variety of websites, many of which claim that the black panther (i.e. melanistic leopard) that it depicts was recently photographed in the wild somewhere in North America. It is precisely where that has incited controversy, with a number of different States variously cited, including Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas. Once again, however, after subjecting the photo to a Google Image search I swiftly uncovered its true provenance, which proved to be South Africa. Indeed, as I discovered from the following online article, dated 20 March 2013, which contains and originated this photo:

the animal in question is a black panther named Coal, one of two (both born in 2003) present in captivity and in the care of conservationist Kevin Richardson at the Dinokeng Nature Reserve in Gauteng, South Africa. Clearly, therefore, person(s) unknown had subsequently utilised the photo in fake reports claiming that it had been snapped in North America. (Also worth noting, incidentally, is that the grass in this photo is an African species, not a North American one.)


(© Patricia Piccinini / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

This extraordinary photograph has been the subject of much online speculation since as far back as 2005, and has even featured in various YouTube videos. Lurid claims that its subjects were bona fide human-canine hybrids are widespread, and also that it is a skilfully-produced Photoshop creation. In reality, neither of these is correct, because what it really is…is a very remarkable sculpture, as revealed in the following link:

As explained there, the sculpture is entitled 'The Young Family', and was created by Australian artist Patricia Piccinini in 2002. It was manufactured from silicone, polyurethane, leather, plywood, and human hair, measures 80 x 150 x 110 cm, and is part of a larger work entitled 'We Are Family'.


(© Kadokawa Pictures / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

This memorable photograph recently reappeared in the following online article, dated 25 September 2013:

but it has been circulating online in similar accounts for quite a while prior to that (I have found web reports of it dating back as far as August 2012). The article claims that this mega-tortoise, measuring 30 ft long and weighing well over 2380 lb, had been discovered in a Brazilian stretch of the Amazon River after killing local farmers' livestock, and was around 529 years old. As anyone familiar with Japanese 'monster' films would soon confirm, however, the photo is merely a still from the popular movie Gamera the Brave, produced in Japan by Kadowara Pictures in 2006 – as verified by the following French website page:


(?© martincito1/tumblr.com)

Four separate photographs of alleged black lions have been circulating online for more than 2 years, and as I have documented in my books Mystery Cats of the World (1989) and Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), several unconfirmed sightings of such animals have been reported from various regions of Africa, but no verified specimen has ever been documented. So what were the animals in the online photos? As I revealed in two exclusive ShukerNature investigations:


three of these four black lion photographs were photoshopped versions of original images depicting normal, tawny-coloured lions. And the fourth black lion photo was a photoshopped version of an original image of a rare white lion – I successfully tracked down all four of the original images online.


(original source/copyright holder unknown to me)

Another popular, perennial subject represented online by a wide variety of fake images is the multi-hooded (and –headed) cobra. Claimed in some reports to constitute living nagas or Indian snake deities, they were, as I soon revealed in another ShukerNature investigation:

to be nothing more than clever Photoshop creations. Indeed, there is even a video on YouTube that provides a step-by-step guide on how to create your very own multi-hooded cobra 'faux-tograph'.


(© Dr Takeshi Yamada / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

This very spectacular photo has incited much discussion online in recent years – which is very strange, bearing in mind that even the most cursory Google Image search will rapidly reveal that the 32-ft-long sea serpent depicted in it is in reality a very adept creation of master monster-maker Dr Takeshi Yamada. Indeed, as I revealed in the following ShukerNature article:

it is just one of many fascinating examples of so-called rogue taxidermy produced over the years by Yamada. Others include a chupacabra snail, a vampire monkey, a Mongolian death worm, a whip-tailed tree octopus, and an eight-legged spider dog!


(© Alan E. Friswell)

In stark contrast to Yamada's example, this eyecatching sea serpent photograph has greatly perplexed many people (and continues to do so), judging from the contradictory claims and comments concerning it that have appeared in online discussions and even in YouTube videos. Its portrayed location has been variously stated to be a beach in Hawaii, South Australia, and the Philippines. Moreover, no-one has been able to identify the creature that the photo depicts, but some bizarre suggestions have been offered, including an oarfish – which looks nothing like it! Happily, however, this photo poses no such problems for me – because, as now exclusively revealed here on ShukerNature, I just so happen to know who created it! None other than a good friend of mine, expert monster/dinosaur model-maker Alan E. Friswell, as he revealed to me in October 2013:

"I drew this sea serpent in photoshop in 2009, to accompany an article that I wrote for the CFZ [Centre for Fortean Zoology] blog page."

Evidently, therefore, it had subsequently been lifted by person(s) unknown and passed off by them as a real, unidentified creature. This is exactly how so many online cryptozoological hoaxes arise. Someone like Alan innocently creates a fictitious beast as artwork, but then other persons deliberately pass it off as a genuine animal. Indeed, this is precisely what happened with some of the black lion photos too, and also with the next case in our listing.


(© Paul Santa Maria / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

This dramatic photograph must have sent shivers down the spine of many an arachnophobic viewer since it first appeared online more than 2 years ago. It often appeared with an account describing it as an Angolan witch spider. Here's one version of that account:

"It's a new spider called the Angolan witch spider. They migrated from South America [very odd, since Angola is in Africa!]. They primarily eat dogs and cats. In Texas this abnormally large spider was found on the side of this home. It took several gun shots to kill it."

When I first saw the photo a year or so ago, I readily identified its subject as a wolf spider, albeit one of wholly implausible size. And sure enough, a little online detective work on my part soon traced the truth behind the terror, as fully documented in the following website account:


It reveals that the photograph was produced via Photoshop as a joke by artist-musician Paul Santa Maria, who uploaded it onto his Facebook page, where it remained for just a few hours before he took it down again. But that was still sufficient time for it to be copied by someone onto their own page, from where it soon went viral. The bogus account of it being an Angolan witch spider was attached to it by person(s) unknown – and the rest, as they say, is history.


(copyright holder unknown to me)

A year ago, several correspondents alerted me to the above photograph and an accompanying report, circulating on Facebook and elsewhere online, concerning what was claimed to be a rare but remarkable species of owl. It is known as the rainbow owl on account of its gaudy, multicoloured plumage, and according to the report it is native to the USA and China (an oddly discontinuous zoogeographical distribution, to say the least!) but was hunted into near-extinction during the early 20th Century due to coveters of its beautiful feathers. Moreover, it has an unusually melodious call, and is so attracted to music and human singing that researchers seeking it in the field know that they will greatly increase their chances of finding specimens if they bring along a portable stereo. The author of this intriguing report was one Dr Claudia Weatherfield of the University of Toldeo.

Needless to say, as someone with a longstanding ornithological interest yet who had no prior knowledge whatsoever of any such species, I was instantly suspicious. And rightly so, as it turned out, because some online investigations soon led me to the following webpages contained on two websites devoted to exposing hoaxes, and which fully justified my concern:



They revealed that there is no University of Toldeo; nor any Claudia Weatherfield working even at the similarly-named University of Toledo. The photograph was clearly a computer-modified version of some other image, and sure enough the original photo proved to be of a barred owl Strix varia - a common North American species unadorned by any rainbow-hued plumage.

Who knows – perhaps now, finally, all of these tenacious phoneys will be laid to rest forever…but with their exceptional history and capacity for resurrection, I wouldn't bet on it!

Another photograph of Dr Takeshi Yamada's incredible 32-ft sea serpent (© Dr Takeshi Yamada / inclusion here strictly on Fair Use/non-commercial basis only)

Monday 6 January 2014


Reconstruction of the likely appearance of the Indian swamp adder, aka the speckled band (© Tim Morris)

According to a number of Sherlockian scholars, today, 6 January, is Sherlock Holmes's birthday - so it seemed a very appropriate day upon which to present the following ShukerNature investigation of mine.

During his numerous cases, the famous if fictitious consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, encountered a number of extraordinary creatures – the hound of the Baskervilles, the giant rat of Sumatra (click here for my ShukerNature article re this monstrous rodent), an unknown species of worm that sent its observer insane, and an exceptionally venomous, enigmatic Indian serpent referred to obliquely by one of its victims as the speckled band. But does the latter snake truly exist, and, if so, what is it?


First appearing in February 1892 within the Strand Magazine as a stand-alone Sherlock Holmes short story, 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' is one of twelve that were then collected together and republished later that same year within a compilation volume entitled 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes'. (It was also adapted by Conan Doyle into a stage play called The Stoner Case, with the production opening at London’s Adelphi Theatre in June 1910.)

This particular story tells of how Dr Grimesby Roylott, a very aggressive medical doctor heavily in debt but with two heiress step-daughters, murdered one of them, Julia Stoner, using a most ingenious, undetectable modus operandi that he was now also secretly attempting to use upon his other step-daughter, Helen Stoner. If successful, he would retain all of their money. Although Helen does not realise that her own life is in imminent danger, she feels sufficiently disturbed by the mysterious death of her sister, who was heard to cry out "It was the band! The speckled band!" immediately before dying, to engage Sherlock Holmes to investigate.

Holmes, Watson, and Helen Stoner, depicted by Sidney Paget

Assisted by his faithful companion Dr Watson, it is Holmes who then discovers that Roylott had murdered Julia (and was now seeking to do the same to Helen) using an exceedingly venomous species of Indian snake referred to by Holmes as a swamp adder, whose blotch-patterned body was the speckled band that the doomed Julia's last words had succinctly described.

Sherlock Holmes striking out at the swamp adder, depicted by Sidney Paget

Happily, after hiding in Helen's bedroom they are able to thwart the deadly serpent, which, angered by Holmes's attack upon it with a cane, swiftly flees from whence it had come - back into the bedroom of its owner, Roylott. When Holmes and Watson then enter Roylott's room, they find him dead, with what looks at first like a speckled band wrapped around his head. Upon cautious, closer inspection, however, this proves to be the swamp adder, which in its enraged, still-agitated state had turned upon Roylott, killing him with a single lethal, fast-acting bite.

Waxwork of Dr Grimesby Roylott with swamp adder around his head, at London's Sherlock Holmes Museum (public domain, from Wikipedia)


In the story, the swamp adder was referred to by Holmes as "the deadliest snake in India", but what exactly is a swamp adder? No known species of snake in India – or anywhere else, for that matter - is ever referred to by that particular name. Unfortunately, however, the story contains only the sparsest of morphological and behavioural details concerning this enigmatic serpent.

Its body is yellow, patterned with brownish speckles, and probably around 1 m long but fairly slender if it resembles a band and can wrap itself around a man's head. Its own head is squat and diamond-shaped, and its neck is puffed. Its hiss is said to be "a very gentle, soothing sound, like that of a small jet of steam escaping continually from a kettle", but according to Holmes its venom is so toxic that it kills in 10 seconds. Yet its fangs apparently leave such tiny, inconspicuous puncture wounds when it bites its victim that they were not noticed by the coroner who examined Julia Stoner's body. For according to a statement made by her sister Helen to Holmes, no marks had been found upon Jane by the coroner.

Down through the years, this intriguing reptilian mystery has engaged the attention of many scholars, of Sherlockian and herpetological expertise alike, with a number of different identities proposed for the perplexing Indian swamp adder.


The most popular identity is the very venomous tic polonga or Russell's viper Daboia russelii, a large terrestrial species found throughout the Indian subcontinent. Due in no small way to its frequent proximity to human habitation, this infamous species is responsible for more deaths and incidents involving snake-bite than any other venomous snake in the entire region. Up to 1.66 m long, its relatively slender, brown-blotched, yellow-tan body does recall the 'speckled band' description for the mystifying swamp adder. Also, as its triangular head is distinct from its neck, when viewed at certain angles its head and the beginning of its neck can collectively yield a diamond shape.

Russell's viper (© gupt_sumeet/Wikipedia)

However, like that of all vipers, this species' venom is haemotoxic, which is relatively slow-acting compared to the much more rapid-acting neurotoxin produced by elapids. And far from being gentle and soothing in sound, its hiss is famously loud – among the loudest hisses produced by any species of snake. In addition, its preferred habit is dry, grassy, open terrain; it actively avoids humid, swampy, marshy areas. Clearly, therefore, the Russell's viper is unlikely ever to be referred to as a swamp adder.

Saw-scaled viper depicted in a painting from 1878

Two other viperid candidates that have also been proposed on occasion are the Indian saw-scaled viper Echis carinatus (also known as the little Indian viper) and the temple viper Tropidolaemus wagleri. However, the former species does not exceed 80 cm (and only rarely exceeds 60 cm), and does not possess either the speckled patterning or the diamond-shaped head of the swamp viper. Also, it is an inhabitant of dry, rocky terrain, not humid swamps. As for the temple viper: this pit viper species is bigger than the saw-scaled viper, with females growing up to 1 m long. It also exhibits a range of colour and pattern variations, but none of them includes that of the swamp adder. And, crucially, it is not native to India anyway (its distribution being confined to southeastern Asia).

Temple viper, green variety (© Bonvallite/Wikipedia)

Neither is the African puff adder Bitis arietans, yet this too has been suggested by some as a putative swamp adder. Quite apart from its fundamental zoogeographical difference, however, the puff adder is renowned for the loudness (as opposed to the gentleness) of its hiss, and for the savagery of its bite, whose fangs can cause severe physical trauma in addition to their envenoming effects. This is a very far cry from the very inconspicuous puncture marks attributed to the swamp adder.

Puff adder ready to strike

Another exclusively African species that has been considered is the rhinoceros viper Bitis nasicornis, named after its instantly noticeable horn-like scales on the end of its nose – features conspicuous only by their absence in the swamp adder's description!

Rhinoceros viper (© Dawson/Wikipedia)

Exit the puff adder and the rhinoceros viper.


The common Indian cobra Naja naja is a much-touted elapid candidate for the swamp adder's identity, particularly by the late Richard Lancelyn Green and certain other Sherlockian scholars and devotees. Certainly, its neurotoxin would act more swiftly than the haemotoxin of any viper or adder. Nevertheless, it is difficult to conceive how so familiar and distinctive a snake as this one, perhaps the best known serpent species in all of India, could possibly be one and the same as the mysterious swamp adder. True, the latter's puffed neck may be an allusion to the cobra's hood (or at least a cobra-reminiscent neck expansion), but the Indian cobra lacks the characteristic speckled patterning of the swamp adder, and its head is not diamond-shaped. In fact, it looks nothing remotely like any type of adder or viper.

Indian cobras and snake charmers, depicted in a lithograph from 1890

Even more implausible ophidian identities that have been raised at one time or another include the decidedly non-venomous, non-Asian boa constrictor Boa constrictor; the extremely venomous but irrefutably Australian taipan Oxyuranus scutellatus; and a species of krait.

Fundamental zoogeographical differences aside, the boa constrictor notion no doubt stems from a suggestion that Conan Doyle was inspired to write his story having read a story entitled 'Called on by a Boa Constrictor: A West African Adventure', which had appeared in Cassell’s Saturday Journal, published in February 1891. Staying in a ramshackle cabin belonging to a Portuguese trader, the narrator reveals his horror at being woken by a massive snake dangling over him. Paralysed by fear, he cannot cry out, but he spots a bell hanging off a beam within reach. Although the cord to ring it has rotted away, the narrator discloses how he manages to summon help by hitting it with a stick.

Boa constrictor

Nor is this the only link between the speckled band mystery and a species of constricting snake. In his stage production of this story, The Stoner Case, Conan Doyle cast an African rock python Python sebae as the speckled band. Unfortunately, this particular snake did not excel in the role. Conan Doyle later wrote:

"We had a fine rock boa [sic] to play the title-rôle, a snake which was the pride of my heart, so one can imagine my disgust when I saw that one critic ended his disparaging review by the words, "The crisis of the play was produced by the appearance of a palpably artificial serpent." I was inclined to offer him a goodly sum if he would undertake to go to bed with it."

As for a krait: it is true that certain species are Indian, all are venomous (some extremely so), and they may be encountered in damp areas. However, they differ dramatically from the speckle-patterned swamp adder with its squat diamond-shaped head by virtue of their boldly striped markings and their sleek, slender head.

Banded krait, depicted in a painting from 1878

Kraits are also extremely timid, often preferring to conceal their head amid their coils, drawing attention away from it by vigorously twitching their tail instead, thus readily contrasting with the swamp adder's active, undisguised aggression.

Of course, there is the remote, but not impossible, prospect that the swamp adder is not a snake at all...


Certainly, there are various peculiar behavioural characteristics claimed for the swamp adder that cause problems when attempting to reconcile it with any species of snake. In 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band', the swamp adder reaches its victim, Julia Stoner, by crawling through a ventilation shaft linking her bedroom with that of her murderous step-father Roylott next door, and then down a rope pull hanging directly over the bed in which she is sleeping. After it has bitten her, the snake crawls up the rope again and back through the shaft, in response to Roylott (in his bedroom) having alerted it by whistling to it!

First and foremost: unless it were an exceptionally adept arboreal species, would the swamp adder be able to climb up a vertical length of rope? And secondly: as snakes are famously insensitive aurally to airborne vibrations, how could it possibly be able to hear Roylott's whistling?

Consequently, there has been speculation that the swamp adder is not a snake at all, but conceivably a legless or near-legless species of lizard, belonging to the skink family. There are indeed several species of skink fitting this description, and which therefore do appear remarkably serpentine on first glance, especially to non-specialist observers. Some such lizards, moreover are native to India.

Chalcides chalcides, a near-limbless skink

And skinks, unlike snakes, can definitely hear airborne vibrations. Whether they are adept at climbing up and down vertical ropes is another matter, but in any case this otherwise ingenious non-ophidian identity is fatally scuppered by the incontestable fact that skinks are entirely non-venomous. Consequently, if a skink bit someone, they would not be poisoned by it.

The only sensible conclusion that can be drawn from this article's analysis of the varied candidates on offer is that the swamp adder is an entirely fictitious, invented creature that Conan Doyle created specifically in order to supply his story with a supremely formidable reptilian opponent for pitting against Sherlock Holmes – an ophidian Moriarty, no less. Aspects of its appearance may well have been inspired by real snakes, such as the Russell's viper's body colouration and markings, and the rapid action of the cobra's neurotoxin, but the swamp adder has no basis in reality as a valid, discrete species in its own right.

Russell's viper, depicted in a drawing from 1878

However, this is not quite the end of this literary serpent's identity crisis. There is still one more identity to consider, the most astonishing of all – not only because of its particular nature but also because of where (and how) it appeared within the scientific literature.


In a previous ShukerNature article (click here), I documented an extraordinary mystery beast said to inhabit the Gobi Desert and known as the Mongolian death worm. According to the nomads inhabiting this vast expanse of sand, the death worm can spit forth a deadly, corrosive venom, and can also kill instantly if touched by a mechanism that sounds uncannily like electrocution. No specimen of this reputedly lethal animal has ever been made available for scientific analysis, and it may well simply be folkloric, or even if genuine merely a harmless amphisbaenian or similar reptile whose murderous talents owe more to local superstition than to physiological capability.

Reconstruction of the likely appearance of the Mongolian death worm (© Ivan Mackerle)

In 1956, however, the death worm was sensationally linked to the swamp adder as the latter's bona fide identity. Not only that, it was even given a formal scientific name. The publication in which all of this appeared was a very comprehensive 238-page monograph of the lizard family Helodermatidae, which houses those two famously venomous New World species, the Gila monster Heloderma suspectum and the beaded lizard H. horridum. Published in no less august a scientific journal than the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, and entitled 'The Gila Monster and Its Allies', it was authored by renowned herpetologists Drs Charles M. Bogert and Rafael Martín Del Campo, and as would be expected from such authors writing in such a journal, the paper was totally scientific and serious throughout – or was it?

Gila monster

Tucked away on pages 206-209, in a section entitled 'Hybrid Origin', was a mind-boggling claim that according to a paper by snake authority Dr Laurence M. Klauber, a hybrid creature had been successfully produced in a laboratory in Calcutta, India, by crossbreeding cobras with Gila monsters! Not only that, some of these astounding hybrids had subsequently escaped, with various of their descendants yielding the allegedly highly venomous Indian lizard called the bis-cobra (featured in a forthcoming book of mine), and other descendants yielding the Mongolian death worm in the Gobi Desert!

Moreover, and equally dramatic, this selfsame hybrid was also claimed to be the identity of the swamp adder in Conan Doyle's Speckled Band story. A quadrupedal lizard with the venomous potency of a cobra would, in the opinion of Klauber, reconcile all of the problems faced when attempting to identify the swamp adder with any of the more traditional identities that have been proposed.

Accordingly, in their monograph Bogert and Martín Del Campo put forward an official binomial name for this hybrid, which was clearly now breeding true and therefore, they felt, fully deserved one. They dubbed it Sampoderma allergorhaihorhai – 'Sampoderma' combining 'samp' (a Hindustani name for 'snake') and the Gila monster's generic name, Heloderma; and 'allergorhaihorhai' being a name applied by the Gobi nomads to the death worm. They even included an ideogram of the hybrid's appearance.

Ideogram of Sampoderma allergorhaihorhai (© Derry Bogert/Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History - reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Needless to say, however, the concept of successful hybridisation between a cobra and a Gila monster is so outlandish that there was clearly more – or less – to the claims of Bogert and Martín Del Campo than met the eye, as a closer study of this particular section of their monograph soon revealed. (Moreover, the bis-cobra is also a red herring, figuratively if not taxonomically, because in reality it is a harmless varanid that superstitious folklore has conferred all manner of venomous traits upon.) For although Klauber was indeed a real-life herpetological authority and his paper regarding the hybrid also existed, it had not been published in any scientific journal but instead within an issue from 1948 of the Baker Street Journal.

This was a periodical devoted entirely to the fictional world contained within the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and included much imaginative and entertaining but entirely theoretical speculation and extrapolation regarding various aspects of these stories' plots, characters, etc. And indeed, in his paper Klauber refers to Holmes, Watson, and the nefarious Dr Roylott as real persons, naming Roylott as the creator of the cobra x Gila monster hybrid. In short, it was all entirely tongue-in-cheek, not to be taken in any way seriously.

As this is instantly apparent from reading Klauber's paper, why, therefore, had Bogert and Martín Del Campo included the fictitious hybrid in a sober, ostensibly factual manner within their otherwise entirely literal, highly authoritative monograph? According to Daniel D. Beck writing in his own major work, Biology of Gila Monsters and Beaded Lizards (2004), it was a prank by Bogert that was meant to poke fun at one of his "stodgy" colleagues at the American Museum of Natural History.

Beaded lizards – closest living relative of the Gila monster

Whatever the reason, there is no doubt at all that equating it even in jest with the Mongolian death worm yielded for the dreaded Indian swamp adder (aka the speckled band) an identity so extraordinary that even the great Sherlock Holmes himself may well have been hard-pressed to deduce it!

Sherlock Holmes, depicted by Sidney Paget

NB - all non-credited illustrations included in this ShukerNature article are (to the best of my knowledge) in the public domain.