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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Tuesday 30 November 2021


A worker specimen of Aphaenogaster swammerdami, a Madagascan species of funnel ant (© AntWeb.org/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)

While lately perusing online some 19th-Century back numbers of the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine (a yearly periodical that has proved very fruitful in providing me with fascinating but hitherto-obscure, cryptozoologically-unreported material concerning Malagasy mystery beasts of many kinds), I chanced upon a truly bizarre report regarding ants and snakes that as far as I am aware has not been previously blogged about online.

Appearing in this periodical's Christmas 1875 issue, it consisted of the following account, from an article written by Madagascan traveller/clergyman Rev. H.W. Grainge and entitled 'Journal of a visit to Mojanga and the north-west coast':

We also noticed about this part a large number of earthen mounds, varying from one to two and a half feet in height; these were the nest of a large ant credited by the men with uncommon sagacity. We were told that they make regular snake traps in the lower part of these nests; easy enough for the snake to enter, but impossible for it to get out of. When one is caught the ants are said to treat it with great care, bringing it an abundant and regular supply of food, until it becomes fat enough for their purpose; and then, accor­ding to native belief, it is killed and eaten by them.

(Mojanga is nowadays known as Mahajanga, or Majunga in French – Madagascar is a former French colony; these names are applied to a city and administrative district on Madagascar's northwest coast.) 

Vintage photograph of wilderness at Mojanga during the early 20th Century (public domain)

Rev. Grainge's macabre little vignette attracted the attention of a reader named R. Toy, who duly quoted it exactly a year later, in the Christmas 1876 issue of the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine, and then appended his own equally interesting firsthand experiences concerning this very curious affair:

It would be interesting if some missionary living in the country would test the reality of this reputed fact by digging open a few of these nests. There is no doubt but that the belief is most universal among the natives. I have been assured most confidently over and over again that it is a fact that snakes are kept and fattened by the ants as above described; and knowing the sagacity of ants, and the care they take in feeding the aphides for the sake of their honey, one would not hastily set aside the statement, so generally accepted by the natives, as devoid of truth.

Needless to say, just because a belief is widely accepted does not necessarily make it true, as the very widely accepted yet wholly fallacious belief in hoop snakes, for instance, readily demonstrates. Equally, however, as noted by Toy, the farming and milking of aphids by ants for their sweet secretions is well documented scientifically. So too is their rearing within their nests of the caterpillars of the large blue Phengaris arion, a Eurasian species of lycaenid butterfly.

Large blue (© PJC&Co/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

(Although in this latter instance, the ants are the unsuspecting victims of a lepidopteran version of brood parasitism, with the large blue's caterpillars actually acting as predators after having tricked the ants via morphological and pheromonal mimicry tactics into carrying them inside their nests, then feeding them there; the caterpillars also take the opportunity to prey upon the ants' own pupae).

Even so, it is an immense step up, behaviourally speaking, from ants feeding 'cuckoo' caterpillars that they have been tricked into bringing inside their nests to ants purposefully trapping snakes inside their nests, then fattening them up, before killing them specifically to devour them. Such a highly advanced strategy has no readily apparent, direct parallels elsewhere in the ant, or indeed in the entire insect, world – or does it? Read on.

In August 2019, a trio of Japanese researchers who included Teppei Jono published a fascinating Royal Society Open Science paper (click here to access it) revealing two very different but closely interacting relationships between a species of Madagascan myrmicine ant Aphaenogaster swammerdami and two species of snake, all of which was hitherto unsuspected by science and unequivocally novel. The snakes are a large ant-eating blindsnake called Mocquard's worm snake Madatyphlops decorsei, and an even larger ophiophagous (snake-eating) lampropheid called the Malagasy cat-eyed snake Madagascarophis colubrinus (also known locally as the ant mother – see later).

A Madatyphlops blindsnake or worm snake (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Native to much of the world (sub-Saharan Africa, much of South America, and Antarctica being the only major exceptions), there are approximately 200 species of Aphaenogaster ant, which belong to the taxonomic subfamily Myrmicinae, and produce just a single caste of worker. They are famous for their large funnel-shaped nests (more about which later), earning them the common name of funnel ants. In Madagascar, a major predator of these ants is Mocquard's worm snake Madatyphlops decorsei, endemic to this mini-island continent, and formally described by French herpetologist Dr François Mocquard in 1901, who named it in honour of Gaston-Jules Decorse, a French army physician.

Mocquard assigned this newly-revealed species to the nominate blindsnake genus Typhlops, where it remained until 2014 when a new genus, Madatyphlops, was specifically created for the blindsnakes of Madagascar and the Comoros (14 species are currently recognised), and to which it was duly transferred (and of which it is the largest species). Dark shiny grey-brown dorsally, paler ventrally, this species spends its life underground, explaining why it only has vestigial eyes.

As for the Malagasy cat-eyed snake or ant mother Madagascarophis colubrinus, this species is an active predator of Mocquard's worm snake and is a member of the taxonomic family Lampropheidae. The latter was long considered to be merely a subfamily of Colubridae, but was elevated to the level of a family in its own right in 2010 when a molecular-based study revealed that in reality its member species were more closely allied to the elapids than to the colubrids. Very variable in colour and markings, M. colubrinus is one of five species housed within its genus, endemic to Madagascar, and all are mildly venomous, but they are capable of constriction too if their venom proves insufficient to subdue their prey. This consists of other small reptiles, including snakes as already noted, plus rodents. They have large eyes with vertical, superficially cat-like pupils, hence their common name.

Malagasy cat-eyed snake Madagascarophis colubrinus, aka the ant mother (© Dawson/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)

According to a publicity release (click here to access it) issued on Scimex when the Japanese team's August 2019 paper was published:

A Madagascan ant species can tell whether marauding snakes are friend or foe. When ant-eating blind snakes approach an ant nest, the worker ants run back to evacuate their young, leaving a few behind to mount a biting attack on the intruder. But they also have a second line of defence. The ants allow one of the few known predators of the blindsnake - a snake-eating snake - into their nest, in what the authors say is a symbiotic relationship where the ants get protection and the snake gets a cosy place to hide. Instead of biting the snake-eating snake when it approaches, the ants touch them with their antenna - a well-known form of communication between ants.

In the past, differences in reactions by ants to other species had only occurred relative to different insect predators or aggressors. Consequently, as noted by University of York researcher Dr Eleanor Drinkwater in a Naked Scientists website interview on 20 August 2019 concerning this study by Jono et al., the latter might be the first study to show that ants react differently to different vertebrate predators too. When the researchers conducted experiments to determine the ants' reactions to these snakes, presenting to various nests of this ant species a specimen of each of the two snakes plus one of a third, control snake species, the ants ignored the ant mother snake, but attacked the blindsnake and also the control snake. However, the only snake that sent the ants fleeing back inside their nest to evacuate it was the blindsnake.

Another worker specimen of Aphaenogaster swammerdami (© AntWeb.org/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)

Reading this remarkable discovery has made me wonder whether it may have influenced the native Madagascan belief in ants trapping, fattening up, and then killing snakes. After all, the reason why the local tribespeople refer to M. colubrinus as the ant mother is that they are well aware of its frequent presence around the nests of this particular species of ant, and that it preys upon the blindsnakes preying upon the ants, thereby indirectly protecting the ants.

Also, the nests of some Aphaenogaster ants are both funnel-shaped and deep, conceivably giving a false impression that they have been specially created as inescapable traps for snaring creatures. (Having said that, it is possible that in certain Australian Aphaenogaster species, their nests' funnel-shaped entrances do act as traps for surface foraging arthropods.)

Could it be, therefore, that the Madagascan locals knew of the ants' different specific reactions to these two snakes too, long before the researchers scientifically revealed them recently, but that down through many generations of verbal retellings the true nature of these reactions and also of their nests had become distorted and elaborated upon, eventually yielding an imaginative but wholly incorrect scenario whereby the ants do not merely attack the blindsnakes but actually trap, feed, and then feed upon them?

A predominantly black specimen of the Malagasy cat snake (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

After all, it wouldn't be the first time that garbled, orally-transmitted recollections of elusive animals and unusual animal behaviour by non-scientific observers has resulted in the evolution of memorable yet entirely erroneous folk beliefs.

Finally: after discovering the two above-quoted reports in two successive early volumes of the Antananarivo Annual and Madagascar Magazine, I painstakingly checked through every succeeding volume of it, and also widely elsewhere online, but I have been unable to uncover any additional reports on this most curious subject.

Consequently, it presently remains a herpetological enigma – unless anyone reading this ShukerNature blog article of mine has further information? If so, I'd love to hear from you!

Madagascar's ophidian ant mother Madagascarophis colubrinus (© Axel Strauss/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)


Saturday 20 November 2021


My cast of one of the set of Isle of Wight mega-sized animal footprints from April 1994 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Here's a cautionary little tale for cryptozoology that I included during a lecture presented by me on modern-day mystery beast reports at the very first Fortean Times UnConvention, held in London during 18-19 June 1994. However, I've never previously documented it anywhere online – so it's high time that I did.

In April 1994, naturalist Martin Trippett from the Isle of Wight (a large island situated off southern England) informed me that a garden in the IOW town of Ride had recently received an unusual visitor. The garden had been freshly dug on the day in question by its owners, who then placed their garden rubbish in some bin-liners. The garden was completely enclosed by a 3-ft-high wall and its only entrance was via a gate, which they locked that night.

Showing what a bona fide big cat footprint looks like, here is a real lion spoor cast in brass as a (very!) heavy paperweight, placed alongside a ruler for scale purposes; it was purchased  for me by my mother Mary Shuker in South Africa, November 2008 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The next morning, they found that some unidentified animal had been in their garden, ripping the bin liners to shreds and leaving huge footprints all over the freshly dug soil. The photograph opening this present ShukerNature article is of a cast of one set of those prints (later described to me over the phone by some IOW newspaper reporters), which Martin very kindly posted to me for my examination and permanent retention.

Measuring 4.5 in long and 4 in across, the prints had no claw marks at all, which ostensibly leaned towards a huge cat as an identity. However, when the casts were sent to me, I could see from the shape of the heel pad and the diverging placement of the toe pads that they were in fact dog prints, albeit from a very large and extremely well-manicured dog – so this is what I told the reporters.

Diagrams comparing dog and cat spoor – typical examples (click to enlarge for reading purposes) (© Trevor Beer reproduced with his kind permission in my 1989 book Mystery Cats of the World and in its updated 2020 edition Mystery Cats of the World Revisited)

Inevitably, they were rather disappointed, as this dashed any hopes for them of dramatic headlines concerning giant cats on the loose. Nevertheless, they then confessed to me that they had actually been informed by the police that a Great Dane dog had been loose in this particular area for the past week, a huge breed that could very easily scale a 3-ft-high wall if it so chose (more details here).

All of which proves that however tempted you may be to give the media the story that it wants, regardless of your own personal opinion, it is not a good idea to do so. Cryptozoology has a nasty knack of coming back to haunt those who flirt with its favours.

Vintage photograph from 1910 of a Harlequin Great Dane (public domain)