|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, it really was nothing more than an enormous caterpillar, but, if so, I can only presume that estimates of its size were greatly exaggerated.
At least I hope that they were - any butterfly or moth metamorphosing from a 22-in-long caterpillar would be a fearsome sight! Something more akin, in fact, to a Wonderland caterpillar than anything expected from Algeria, or even, indeed, the Isle of Wight.