I'm in Paris, France right now so this is a short episode, but hopefully you'll find it interesting. The blog post I mention in the episode is this one, if you want to take a look at it:
Welcome to the Patreon bonus episode of Strange Animals Podcast for mid-August 2018.
I’m in Paris right now, unless you’re listening to this late. Hello from Paris! I’m having a great time and eating lots of croissants.
If you read zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, you may have noticed a recent post about an animal called the hazelworm. I’d never heard of it before, and it’s so interesting that I decided to make it the subject of a Patreon episode. I’ll put a link to the original blog post in the show notes.
The hazelworm today is a type of reptile, although called the slow worm, blind worm, or deaf adder. It lives in Eurasia, and while it looks like a snake, it’s actually a legless lizard. It can even drop and regrow its tail like a lizard if threatened. It spends most of its time underground in burrows or underneath leaf litter or under logs. It grows almost 2 feet long, or 50 cm, and is brown. Females sometimes have blue racing stripes while males may have blue spots. It eats slugs, worms, and other small animals, so is good for the garden.
But that kind of hazelworm isn’t what we’re talking about here. Back in the middle ages in central Europe, especially in parts of the Alps, there were stories of a big dragonlike serpent that lived in areas where hazel bushes were common. Like its slow-worm namesake, it lived most of its life underground, especially twined around the roots of the hazel. Instead of scales, it had a hairy skin and was frequently white in color. It was supposed to be the same type of snake that had tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
It had a lot of names besides hazelworm, including white worm for its color, paradise worm for its supposed history in the Garden of Eden, and even war worm. That one was because it was only supposed to show itself just before a war broke out.
People really believed it existed, although stories about it sound more like folklore. For instance, anyone who ate hazelworm flesh was supposed to become immortal. It was also supposed to suck milk from dairy cows and spread poison.
Some accounts said it was enormous, as big around as a man’s thigh and some 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters. Sometimes it was even supposed to have feet, or have various bright colors. Sometimes drawings showed wings.
There does seem to be some confusion about stories of the hazelworm and of the tatzelwurm, especially in older accounts. But unlike the tatzelwurm, the mystery of the hazelworm has been solved for a long time—long enough that knowledge of the animal has dropped out of folklore.
Back in the 1770s, a physician named August C. Kuehn pointed out that hazelworm sightings matched up with a real animal...but not a snake. Not even any kind of reptile. Not a fish or a bird or a mammal. Nope, he pointed at the fungus gnat.
The fungus gnat is about 8 mm long and eats decaying plant matter and fungus. You know, sort of exactly not like an 18-foot hairy white snake.
But the larvae of some species of fungus gnat are called army worms. The larvae have white, gray, or brown bodies and black heads, and travel in long, wide columns that do look like a moving snake, especially if seen in poor light or in the distance. I’ve watched videos online of these processions and they are horrifying! They’re also rare, so it’s certainly possible that even people who have lived in one rural area their whole life had never seen an armyworm procession. Naturally, they’d assume they were seeing a monstrous hairy snake of some kind, because that’s what it looks like.
Sightings of smaller hazelworms may be due to the caterpillar of the pine processionary moth, which also travels in a line nose to tail, which looks remarkably like a long, thin, hairy snake. Don’t touch those caterpillars, by the way. They look fuzzy and cute but their hairs can cause painful reactions when touched.
The adult moths lay their eggs in pine trees and when the eggs hatch the larvae eat pine needles and can cause considerable damage to the trees. They overwinter in silk tents, then leave the trees in spring and travel in a snaky conga line to eat pine needles. Eventually they burrow underground to pupate. They emerge from their cocoons as adult moths, mate, lay eggs, and die, all within one day.
So that’s it, a tiny little episode about something gross.
Thanks for your support, and thanks for listening!