1867 engraving of a giant snake, from The Bestiarium of Aloys Zötl 1831-1887
During the 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.
THE 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!
18th-Century colour engraving of a rock python, the likely identity of Carthage's giant snake
Deciding that 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.
A rock python, southern subspecies
Always assuming 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 Belgian military pilot Colonel Remy van Lierde. 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 be viewed here (the interview begins at around 7 min 34 sec into the video).
The gargantuan Katanga mystery snake (Colonel Remy van Lierde)
Native to 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.
THE SUCURIJU GIGANTE – SOUTH AMERICA'S SUPER-SIZED ANACONDA
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.
Exploration 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.
Drawing 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 observers!
Illustration of a giant anaconda coming ashore (William Rebsamen)
The following 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.
Old Brazilian postcard from c.1932 depicting an alleged 40-45-m sucuriju gigante, or a clever example of forced perspective?
Equally enigmatic 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.
Supposed 35-m-long 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.
Fake, photoshopped online photograph of a supposed giant black anaconda
PROPORTIONS AND PREHISTORY
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.
Researchers have 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.
Frontispiece 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!
Even prehistory – 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, Colombia.
Life-size model of Titanoboa at the Smithsonian Institution (© Smithsonian Institution)
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!
1825 print of warrior Matsui Tamijiro battling a giant snake (Utagawa Kuniyoshi)