Snakes in Madagascar’s Folklore

During the fall of 2010 I spent four months in Madagascar on a study abroad program. My primary interest has always been herpetology, but since I am also curious about folklore I talked to as many people as possible to learn about traditional stories and beliefs involving reptiles.

Even though Madagascar is an African country, it hasn’t been attached to the rest of the continent since the breakup of Gondwanaland 180 million years ago. In fact, the island has been pretty much isolated for the last 90 million years. As a result, Madagascar’s flora and fauna are quite different from that of anywhere else, and there are a large number of endemic species- species found nowhere else on Earth.

(image from Wikimedia Commons under terms of the GNU Free Documentation License)

Most people probably think of lemurs as Madagascar’s iconic animal. However, the country also hosts a wide range of incredible insects, reptiles, and more.

Madagascar’s poster child: the ring-tailed lemur, Lemur catta.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Another lemur species: Verreaux’s sifaka, Propithecus verreauxi. These guys have super tough feet so they can grip plants in the spiny desert without injury.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Giraffe necked weevil, Trachelophorus giraffa. This beetle is sexually dimorphic- only males have the long neck. Apparently females find it sexy.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Young flatid leaf bugs, Phromnia rosea. These guys have incredible jumping skills and excrete a waxy substance so that any would-be predators get a mouthful of wax rather than bug. They eventually turn into bright pink adults.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Incredible camouflage: A satanic leaf-tailed gecko, Uroplatus phantasticus, looks just like dead leaves.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Incredible camouflage: A mossy leaf-tailed gecko, Uroplatus sikorae, blends in perfectly to a tree trunk.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

A tiny little chameleon, Brookesia minima.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Another chameleon.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Reptiles are one group of animals in Madagascar with high levels of diversity and endemism. For example, the island hosts 2/3 of the world’s chameleons. The large number of unique reptile species in Madagascar contributed to my choice of a study abroad program there. Happily, Madagascar also has a rich folklore surrounding their reptiles and other fauna.

Despite the lack of any really venomous snakes or large constrictors in Madagascar, there exists a widespread fear of serpents. Many harmless species have earned reputations as being generally dangerous or even venomous.

For example, snakes of the genus Ithycyphus, locally called fandrefiala, possess red pigment on their tails that has sparked some grisly tales. The main story goes that fandrefiala wait in the branches of trees for people and zebu to walk underneath, then they drop out of the tree and stab the person through the top of the head, killing them. That is why their tails are supposedly stained with blood.

Closeup of fandrefiala, Ithycyphus sp.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Not a very good photo of fandrefiala (Ithycyphus sp.) but if you squint you can kind of make out the dark red tail.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

A species of snake near and dear to my heart supposedly kills people in a similar way. The Madagascan leaf-nosed snake, Langaha madagascariensis, sports a strange nose that provokes all kinds of wonder. Male leaf-nosed snakes have pointy spear-like protrusions from their snout, while females have leaf-shaped nasal appendages. People in several different parts of the country told me to watch out for this species because it hangs pointing straight down from tree branches until someone walks underneath, then drops out of the tree to spear the person with its pointy nose.

Male Langaha madagascariensis.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Female Langaha madagascariensis.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

The leaf-nosed snake’s nasal  appendage is soft and couldn’t really spear a person through the head, plus it seemed silly to me that a snake would hang upside down from a tree. But then I spent a few weeks studying the species’ behavioral ecology and observed this:

Well-camouflaged male leaf-nosed snake hanging upside down from a tree branch.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

One of the males in my study spent all four nights that I observed him hanging straight down from a branch (Tingle 2012). Crazy! A herpetologist from Florida saw the same behavior in some of his captive vinesnakes (Krysko 2003). I suspect the posture is for camouflage, but I could see how one might think that the snake is waiting to drop down and spear somebody.

People told me of another snake, menarana, that sticks its tongue into a sleeping person’s ear to pierce them throught the brain. Menarana is the Malagasy hog-nosed snake, Leioheterodon sp. This species also inspires fear for biblical reasons: it is the snake said to have tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. This intrusion of western religion into Malagasy folklore rather intrigued me.

Eve’s temptor, Leioheterodon madagascariensis.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

When it’s upset, the Malagasy hog-nosed snake spreads its neck like a cobra does to make itself look bigger and more intimidating.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Not all snakes are reviled. In fact, boas can be a special mediator between the ancestors and their living descendents. When the ancestors need or want anything, such as a blanket, new cooking pots, or any other goods or services, they visit their descendants in the body of a boa to tell them what they require. The descendants then visit the grave to leave those items as an offering.

Madagascar tree boa, Sanzinia madagascariensis.
(Photo: Jessica Tingle)

Traditional Malagasy stories and beliefs about snakes inspired me to delve deeper into the role of reptiles and amphibians outside of the field of herpetology. Partially as a result, I submitted a Fulbright proposal to spend next year studying the role of reptiles in Moroccan culture. With any luck, that will work out and you’ll see more on it later. I’ll be studying up on other topics for this blog in the meantime. Enjoy!

References

Krysko, K.L. 2003. Reproduction in the Madagascar Leaf-nosed Snake, Langaha madagascariensis (Serpentes: Colubridae: Pseudoxyrhophiinae). African Journal of Herpetology 52:61–68.

Tingle, J.L. 2012. Field observations on the behavioral ecology of the Madagascan Leaf-Nosed Snake, Langaha madagascariensis. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 7:442–448. http://herpconbio.org/Volume_7/Issue_3/Tingle_2012.pdf

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