Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History

BioFortean Review, (May 2007, No. 10)

Mystery Reptiles of the Samoan Islands

Chad Arment

The Samoan Islands are located in Polynesia, in the south-central Pacific Ocean. Politically, they are now separated into Samoa and American Samoa. Samoa is comprised of the "twin" islands of Savai'i and 'Upolu. The eastern group of Tutuila, Ofu, Olosega, Ta'u, Rose Island, and Swains Island make up American Samoa.

The island nature of Polynesia means that reptiles are limited to those species which have good invasive capabilities. (Discounting, of course, marine visitors like sea turtles and sea snakes.) This means they are usually small, unobtrusive, and can take advantage of new environments. Lizards, in particular, are good stowaways and rafters. So, it is no surprise that small geckos (Gehyra, Hemidactylus, Lepidodactylus, Nactus) and skinks (Cryptoblepharus, Emoia, Lipinia) have found a home in the Samoan Islands (per the EMBL database).

Snakes are less likely to invade, but at least two species have managed to make a home on some of these islands. The Pacific tree boa, Candoia bibroni, reaches its eastern limit in American Samoa, where it is called gata. It is known from the islands of Ta'u, American Samoa, and Savai'i and 'Upolu, Samoa (Boulenger 1893; Steadman and Pregill 2004). Lever (2003) notes that the population on Ta'u is extremely melanistic. Lever suggests that while this population may be the result of natural colonization, it is possible they were originally brought to the island deliberately as clan totems or curios. These tree boas once inhabited Tutuila, as well (Steadman and Pregill 2004), but were eradicated, probably through the introduction of rats, cats, and other predators. There is speculation (Austin 2000) that the eastern population of C. bibroni (Loyalty Islands, Fiji, Samoans) may be a different species from the western population (Solomon Islands, Vanuatu).

A second species of snake known from the Samoans is the recently introduced Brahminy blind snake (Ramphotyphlops braminus) on Tutuila. This small earthworm-like snake is often introduced via imported plants, so is sometimes called the flowerpot snake. It was first noted on Tutuila in the 1990s (NPS).

I should point out that some online mentions of the python, Liasis mackloti, incorrectly note Samoa as a distribution locality, when they should be noting Semau, Indonesia.

One of the earliest mentions of snakes in the Samoan Islands is from a missionary account (Williams 1837):

  • "I found that a species of serpent abounded in the Samoa Islands; and having expressed a wish to take a specimen with me to the Society islanders, who had never seen one, the ladies immediately ran out of the house, and returned about half an hour afterwards, each having a live snake twined about her neck."

and,

  • "Snakes also, which are unknown at the Tahitian and Hervey groups, abound here. I was informed that there were several species of them, some of which are beautifully variegated. Those procured for me were of a dark olive colour, about three feet long. There are also water-snakes, some of them beautifully marked with longitudinal stripes of yellow and black, and others with rings, alternately white and black."

Clearly, the terrestrial species here is Candoia. The "water-snakes" are various sea-snakes, and shouldn't be confused with freshwater water-snakes.

Candoia bibroni reaches four to six feet in length as an adult. Through much of its range, it is variable in coloration and pattern. It is also capable of changing hue in response to the environment and other conditions. That probably explains the next account (Steinberger 1874):

  • "There are no poisonous reptiles in the Samoan group, but there is a considerable variety of harmless snakes upon the islands of Savaii—white, red, green, black, and spotted."

However, Steinberger goes on to mention another snake:

  • "I saw the first reptiles in the islands at the village of Asou, in Savaii, and there learned of the 'crowing snake,' (Vivimi gata.) It is the subject of native songs. The testimony of both whites and natives points directly to the fact that they have a snake which crows like a cock. I did not see or hear one. The apparent physical impossibility of such an anomaly made me skeptical, but the unequivocal testimony of the missionaries to the existence of such a reptile seems too strong to be rejected."

This same snake is noted again a few years later (Mulligan 1896):

  • "There are persons whom I should regard as reliable, who stoutly maintain the existence in these islands of a very large serpent, which gives out a noise somewhat like the crowing of a cock—a serpent which have heard spoken of as a crowing snake. Other persons of long residence speak of it as a myth. A party of laborers at work in a clearing near this town, not long since, were scattered by the appearance of a large serpent, which swung itself from the branch of one tree to that of another. The men united in the assertion that it made a crowing sound, was of enormous size, and moved with great rapidity. I vouch for none of these assertions, but give them for what they are worth; but the existence of the crowing snake is by some held to as firmly in Samoa as it is by others abroad believed to belong in these islands."

Now, anyone who has paid attention to reports of lesser-known mystery animals from around the world will recognize the folkloric nature of the "crowing serpent." From Jamaica, South Africa, and other locations, native peoples claim that certain sounds, bleating in some areas and clucking in others, come from large dangerous serpents. For example, from Africa (Andersson 1856):

  • "The story of the cockatrice, so common in many parts of the world, is also found among the Damaras; but instead of crowing, or, rather, chuckling like a fowl when going to roost, they say it bleats like a lamb. It attacks man as well as beast, and its bite is considered fatal. They point to the distant north as its proper home. In Timbo's country it is termed 'hangara,' and is said to attain to twelve feet, or even more, in length, with a beautifully variegated skin. On its head, like the Guinea-fowl, it has a horny protuberance of a reddish color. It dwells chiefly in trees. Its chuckle is heard at nightfall; and people, imagining that the noise proceeds from one of their own domestic fowls that has strayed, hasten to drive it home. But this frequently causes their destruction; for, as soon as the cockatrice perceives its victim within reach, it darts at it with the speed of lightning; and if its fangs enter the flesh, death invariably ensues. Timbo informed me that he once saw a dog belonging to his father thus killed. Moreover, the cockatrice, like the wild dog, wantonly destroys more at a time than it can consume."

Of course, there is no attribution of a "crown" or "wattle" in the Samoan mystery snake, just the odd sounds. There is a natural tendency to ascribe unknown sounds to specific creatures even without seeing that animal make the sound. Birds, insects, and especially frogs and toads, can make very strange noises in the dark. I noted a similar situation in Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation, where anthropologist Ralph Bulmer (1968) found that the Karam people lumped several frog species' calls together under the same term, gwnm, while attributing a few frog calls to earthworms.

Could there be an unidentified snake on Savai'i? If we remove vocalizations from the picture (Karl Shuker has noted that some snakes do have limited capability for odd sounds, in any case), we really aren't left with enough of a picture of the snake (how big is "enormous"?) to make any real suggestions. There are only a handful of large snakes known for successfully island hopping to remote areas, and there is little biogeographic evidence that any species other than Candoia made it out to the central Pacific. If I had to stretch, there is the possibility of an early introduction of Boiga irregularis, which would not be happily met by most modern conservationists. I have not run across any modern reports, so cannot be certain there is anything left to investigate. It would of great interest to see any historical accounts that attempt to describe the Samoan crowing snake.

 

Besides the crowing snake, there is an additional mystery reptile for which I've seen only one early reference. Again, from Williams (1837), where he notes:

  • "Very large lizards are found on the mountains of Savaii and Upolu; and from the description I received, I should conclude that they were guanas. None, however, of these reptiles are venomous."

As noted previously, only small geckos and skinks are known from Samoa. There are no known varanids ("guanas") or other large lizards. I wish Williams had been more detailed, as there is little to go on. We do know, however, that gigantism occurs on some islands, and there are some larger geckos and skinks. (Not to mention the cryptozoological giant gecko of New Zealand...) Perhaps there is, or was, an endemic giant? There are several endemic birds in Samoa. One, the Samoan moorhen, has not been confirmed alive since 1873, according to BirdLife.org, with possible sightings in 1987 and 2003. Savai'i, though one of the largest islands in Polynesia (almost 700 square miles), is also one of the least populated (about 50,000 people). Cryptozoological research should next focus on speaking with Savai'i islanders to determine whether any such reptiles have been reported in modern times, and if so, which habitat (e.g., lowland rainforest, cloud forest, etc.) would be best targeted for field work.

 

References

  • Andersson, Charles John. 1856. Lake Ngami, or, Explorations and Discoveries During Four Years' Wanderings in the Wilds of Southwestern Africa. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  • Austin, Christopher C. 2000. Molecular phylogeny and historical biogeography of Pacific island boas (Candoia). Copeia 2000(2): 341-352.
  • Boulenger, G. A. 1893. Catalogue of the Snakes in the British Museum. Vol. 1. London: Taylor & Francis.
    Bulmer, Ralph. 1968. Worms that croak and other mysteries of Karam natural history. Mankind 6(12): 621-639.
  • Lever, Christopher. 2003. Naturalized Reptiles and Amphibians of the World. Oxford University Press.
  • Mulligan, James H., Consul-General. 1896. Samoa: Government, Commerce, Products, and People. Consular Reports, May 1896. LI (188). Washington: GPO.
  • National Park Service. Snakes in Samoa! http://www.nps.gov/archive/npsa/5Atlas/partza.htm
  • Steadman, David W., and Gregory K. Pregill. 2004. A prehistoric, noncultural vertebrate assemblage from Tutuila, American Samoa. Pacific Science 58(4): 615-624.
  • Steinberger, Albert Barnes. 1874. Report on Samoa: or, the Navigation's Island, made to the Secretary of State. Washington: GPO.
  • Williams, John. 1837. A Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Sea Islands. London: J. Snow.

Samoan Islands in the Polynesian Archipelago. Image by Vardion (Wikipedia).

National Park Service image of the Samoan Islands.

CIA Worldmap Images of Samoa and American Samoa.

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