I’ve recently been reading Stephen Spawls’s Sun, Sand & Snakes, a 1979 volume that charts Spawls’s childhood interest in snakes and other reptiles and recounts his numerous japes and scrapes with local, east African herpetofauna. Today, Spawls is a well-known herpetologist, co-author of the excellent The Dangerous Snakes of Africa (Spawls & Branch 1995) and A Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa (Spawls et al. 2002). Sun, Sand & Snakes contains many interesting anecdotes about east African snakes but it’s his brief section on the ‘feathered serpent’ that inspired me to write this article.

Well known to both those who know snakes and those who know the literature on animal myths and anecdotes, the ‘feathered serpent’ is more often known as the Crowing crested cobra. “In some versions the snake has the head of a chicken, complete with combs and wattles, in others it has merely a crest of feathers. This fabulous serpent is, of course, highly poisonous. In most cases it is believed to have the ability to kill its human victims merely by looking at them. It lives on human flesh and can be detected in the areas where it lives by its offensive smell and the strange and frightening noises it makes at night” (Spawls 1979, p. 95).

Stories and sightings that supposedly pertain to the Crowing crested cobra come from South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, and apparently as far north as the Central African Republic. I’m somewhat sceptical of the idea that the various mystery snake-like entities written about across this enormous area really do pertain to the exact same kind of animal, but it’s said that the many named used for the Crowing crested cobra across this range include bubu, inkhomi, hongo, songo and mbobo (Shuker 1991).

The literature on this semi-mythical creature is fairly widely scattered in the arcane literature. However, most of it was gathered together by Bernard Heuvelmans for his 1978 Les Dernier Dragons d’Afrique and again by Karl Shuker for his 1991 Extraordinary Animals Worldwide (and his 2007 Extraordinary Animals Revisited). Karl’s chapter also includes what seems to be the only decent, published reconstruction of the Crowing crested cobra’s purported appearance. That picture (penned by Karl himself) is reproduced here (with permission: © Karl Shuker).

Clearly, the Crowing crested cobra is fairly ridiculous in appearance. Overall, it’s said to be brownish or greyish, but it is scarlet about the face and in possession of a forward-projecting, serrated, cockscomb. Additionally, males supposedly possess paired, chicken-like wattles on either side of the face.

All of this would be crazy enough, but the Crowing crested cobra is supposedly in possession of a number of additional remarkable traits. It’s apparently very large – something like six metres long – and males supposedly make a loud crowing noise, like a rooster, while females make a chicken-like clucking. So, it’s a crowing, crested snake, which kind of explains the name. It’s said to be arboreal and to strike downwards at the heads of unsuspecting people who pass beneath. And it’s said in some stories that, on killing an animal (by either striking and injecting it with venom, or by spraying venom in spitting cobra fashion*), it doesn’t eat it but waits for flies to lay their eggs and then feeds on the maggots. Other stories say that it kills prey by merely looking at them. I should add, however, that there are also more plausible accounts of it preying on hyraxes.

* Real spitting cobras only ‘spit’ (= spray) in self-defence; they do not and cannot kill prey by spraying venom.

I’m reminded of the fact that a fair number of other mystery animals are similarly imbued with – not one – but a whole string of incredible superlative traits. The Brazilian Mapinguari, for example, suggested by some investigators to be a surviving ground sloth, isn’t just a sloth-like mammal with big claws… it also roars like a jet engine, secretes an noxious gas through a mouth-like opening in its belly, and is impervious to bullets. Some of the original stories about the Puerto Rican version of the Chupacabra said how it had wings, could change colour, had kangaroo-like hindlimbs, spikes on its back, a giant fang projecting from its mouth and glowing red eyes, and made the air vibrate with a low-pitched throbbing. It also had psychic powers, liked astrology, was deeply religious, and possessed strong right-wing views about immigration and social welfare.

As is sometimes the case with reports of incredible mystery animals, there are a few accounts that refer to the discovery of Crowing crested cobra specimens. Shuker (1991) discusses the 1944 review compiled by J. O. Shircore in which Shircore (1944) described what was supposedly the partial skeleton of a Crowing crested cobra’s cockscomb. The specimen mostly consisted of a lanceolate plate of bone, marked on its sides with presumed muscle attachment scars, and connected on its upper and lower regions to a section of reddish skin and another fragment of dark, wrinkled head skin. Unfortunately it isn’t possible to make much sense or use of Shircore’s description and it isn’t clear to me how a ‘lanceolate plate’ of bone can be linked with the supposedly chicken-like comb of a Crowing crested cobra. It would be interesting to know what happened to this specimen, or if it’s illustrated anywhere. Shircore also claimed to be in possession of a few other Crowing crested cobra remains (Shircore 1944, Shuker 1991), but these were just vertebrae and skin fragments and I can’t see how he could determine that they were from a possibly novel species of snake.

There’s also a case from 1959 where John Knott was driving through the Kariba area of Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) when he ran over and mortally wounded a large, jet-black snake about 1.8 m long. It possessed a distinct, symmetrical head crest that possessed five internal prop-like struts. Seemingly, these allowed the crest to be raised at will (Shuker 1991). Shuker noted how the ‘struts’ sounded reminiscent of the rods that help the Frill-necked lizard Chlamydosaurus kingii erect its neckfrill, but we don’t know what became of this snake, nor did Knott illustrate or photograph it.

Reports like Shircore’s and Knott’s sound somewhat plausible since they seem to make an anecdotal animal more real by imparting it with apparently genuine remains, but the reports are unfortunately also anecdotal and thus not all that useful.

Needless to say, the existence of the Crowing crested cobra is not accepted by mainstream science, nor is there any good evidence that might support its existence. Nor does it seem likely that a very large, arboreal, elaborately crested, highly vocal snake (inhabiting an area that – comparatively speaking – is well trodden by herpetologists) might really exist. It would be great to be wrong about this, of course.

So – how might belief in this remarkable serpent have arisen? Several ideas have already been suggested and I don’t have any new ones. One possibility is that people have seen ‘crested’ and/or gaudily coloured snakes, and combined them with other stories of spectacularly dangerous, frighteningly big snakes.

Things sometimes go wrong when snakes shed their skin: sections of skin can get stuck and fail to slough off completely, in cases creating peculiar ‘ruffs’, ‘crests’ or ‘frills’ about the head or neck. Apparently a few Black mambas Dendroaspis polylepis – originally identified as ‘crested snakes’ – have been captured and examined in which incompletely sloughed skin was at first mistakenly interpreted as a crest (Spawls 1979, Shuker 1991). Some authors have even said that raised patches of old skin are common on the heads of Black mambas, though I’m not sure that this is true.

Some of the other traits ascribed to the Crowing crested cobra are common motifs in snake stories and legends. Big, scary snake-like animals are discussed in cultures worldwide – I’m thinking of the Naga of southeast Asia [see image below], the Gambian Ninki-Nanka and the various stories of a giant snake (sometimes called the Taguerga) from Algeria – and what’s interesting is that they’re often described as being crested, or having wattles or dewlaps or other cranial adornments. Tales of a Caribbean mystery snake remarkably similar to the Crowing crested cobra were reported by Philip Gosse in his 1867 The Romance of Natural History (and, incidentally, the accounts did not all come from people of recent African ancestry), and tales of a Chinese ‘rooster-crested’ snake that crowed like a chicken have also been recalled by some (Shuker 2007). Comparisons with the European myths of the Cockatrice and Basilisk are of course irresistible.

The idea that the Crowing crested cobra might kill animals in order to later eat the maggots on the carcass is also seen elsewhere in snake folklore. As for the idea that the Crowing crested cobra might be highly vocal and capable of making bird-like noises: again, the ability to make bird-like calls is a peculiar but oft-recounted folkloric ability of certain snakes.

Shuker (1991, 2007) recounted a long series of anecdotes in which people claimed to hear snakes of diverse species make goat-like bleats, duck-like quacks, cat-like purrs, bell-like noises, shrill calls and bird-like notes. The mainstream explanation is that these were mistakes and that people had heard other noises and wrongly associated them with the snakes. Alternatively, some people have suggested that the noises were actually made by prey animals that the snakes were swallowing (not theoretically impossible in some cases), while others have proposed that the noises were mechanical – we know that some snakes and other reptiles can stridulate by rubbing their body or tail scales together.

For the most part, I think that the majority of ‘snake calls’ were indeed the result of confusion on the part of the witnesses, but the possibility remains that just a few weird snake calls really do reflect otherwise unappreciated vocal prowess. We now know, after all, that Bornean cave racers Orthriophis taeniurus can make miaowing-like noises. But, whatever, the alleged chicken-like clucking and crowing of the Crowing crested cobra just seems to be a mythical add-on to an already mythical creature. Known species like gaboon vipers (Bitis gabonica and B. rhinoceros) are claimed in some regions to be “crested snakes which crow”, again showing that bird-like crests and bird-like calls are traits sometimes superimposed onto snakes in myth and anecdote.

As might be clear by now, I’m not holding out much hope that the Crowing crested cobra ever existed. If it did, it would be fun to wonder what sort of snake it could be – presumably an elapid related to, or within, the cobra radiation [the illustration above - by Markus Bühler - is an imaginative attempt to reconstruct the Crowing crested cobra as if it were a real, biologically plausible elapid]. However, it could just be a ‘mythified’ version of the Black mamba (Spawls 1979). It would be awesome to be completely wrong about this – but, alas, the animal almost certainly represents a curious amalgam of myth, superstition and faulty observation.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on snakes, see...

Refs - -

Shircore, J. O. 1944. Two notes on the Crowing crested cobra of Africa. African Affairs 43, 183-186.

Shuker, K. P. N. Extraordinary Animals Worldwide. Robert Hale, London.

- . 2007. Extraordinary Animals Revisited. CFZ Press, Woolsery, Devon.

Spawls, S. 1979. Sun, Sand & Snakes. Collins and Harvill Press, London.

- . & Branch, W. 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. Blandford, London.

- ., Howell, K., Drewes, R. & Ashe, J. 2002. A Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa. Academic Press, San Diego.