Saharan Crested Snake

Giant Snake of North Africa.

Variant name: Taguerga.

Physical description: Length, 30-120 feet. Dark brown with black diamonds on back. Whitish below with dark-gray stripes. Pointed snout. Black crest about 4 inches long on head. Large, chestnut eyes. Thicker body segment about 13 feet long behind a thin neck. Rest of tail tapers to a point.

Behavior: Drinks motor oil.

Distribution: Algeria; Tunisia.

Significant sightings: In 255 B.C. during the First Punic War, after a lengthy struggle in which catapults and siege engines were put to use, the legions of Roman consul Marius Atilius Regulus killed an enormous snake, 120 feet long, along the Wadi Majardah in Tunisia. Its skin and jaws were taken to Rome and publicly displayed in a temple until 133 B.C.

Africanus Leo wrote in the sixteenth century that large, venomous dragons lived in caves in the Atlas Mountains in North Africa.

Charles Tissot wrote in 1884 about a venomous snake in the Tunisian Sahara called the Taguerga, which grows 12—15 feet long.

In 1958, Belkhouriss Abd el-Khader, an Algerian who served in the French army at Beni Ounif, Algeria, was bitten by a giant snake about 43 feet long. The snake was killed and its skin preserved, though it has since been lost.

In 1959, a 120-foot snake with a crest 3 feet long was killed at a garrison near Ai'n Sefra, Algeria, by a French battalion, the Twenty-Sixth Dragoons, commanded by Captains Grassin and Laveau. It had been trapped in a trench filled with branches by nomads and had just eaten a camel. The soldiers' carbines were not sufficient to kill it, so they dispatched it with machine guns.

On January 6 or 7, 1967, a crested serpent about 30 feet long was seen at the construction site of the Djorf-Torba dam east of Bechar, Algeria, by worker Hamza Rahmani, who wedged it against some rocks with his bulldozer. Its teeth were hooked and nearly 2.5 inches long.

At Djorf-Torba in late 1967, Hamza Rah-mani came across the track of a snake leading to barrels of oil that it had been in the habit of drinking. A few days later, he saw the snake coiled in the shadow of a pile of crushed rock. He estimated its length as 18-23 feet. Possible explanations:

(1) The African rock python (Python sebae), though it only reaches a length of 30-33 feet. It lives in forests south of the Sahara, not in the desert, but it is possible some may subsist in remote pockets of tropical vegetation in North Africa. A Dr. Bougon thought that the Punic War snakeskin may actually have been a python's intestine, which would be 120 feet long in a 33-foot snake. Charles Tissot thought the skin may have been artificially stretched.

(2) The venomous Puff adder (Bitis arietans), which lives in southern Morocco and grows to only 4 feet 6 inches but can appear much larger.

(3) The Horned viper (Cerastes cerastes), though it is only about 2 feet long.

(4) An exaggerated Levantine viper (Vipera lebetina), known in Arabic as taguerjah.

(5) An unknown species of viper 7 feet long, based on the size of the teeth recovered from the Djorf-Torba snake, if it was venomous. The small Many-horned viper (Bitis cornuta) of South Africa has a small crest.

(6) An unknown species of python 33-48 feet long, also based on the size of the Djorf-Torba teeth, if they came from a nonvenomous snake.

(7) A surviving Gigantophis garstini, a North African python that reached 30 feet and lived 55 million years ago.

Sources: Valerius Maximus, Dictorum et factorum memorabilium libri novem, I. 8.19; Aulus Gellius, The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, trans. John C. Rolfe (London: William Heinemann, 1927-1928), vol. 2, p. 101 (vii. 3); Dio Cassius, Roman History, X; Julius Obsequens, Prodigiorum liber, 29; Africanus Leo, A Geographical Historie of Africa (London: G. Bishop, 1600); Charles Tissot, Exploration scientifique de la Tunisie (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1884-1888), vol. 1, pp. 329-335; Bougon, "Les serpents de cent vingt pieds," Le Naturaliste 23 (1901): 56-57; Bernard Heuvelmans, Les derniers dragons d'Afrique (Paris: Plon, 1978), pp. 19-43; Helfried Weyer and Henri Lhote, Sahara (Bern, Switzerland: Kümmerly and Frey, 1980).

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