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Arabian flying snakes

From ancient times stories about flying snakes in southern Arabia have abounded, especially those which supposedly protected frankincense trees. However, it is interesting to note that even today there are people in the Dhofar area of southern Oman who believe in flying snakes (although these accounts are not connected with frankincense trees).

In ancient days it was believed that flying snakes inhabited the groves of frankincense trees, protecting them from intruders but also making it much more difficult for the owners of the trees to harvest the precious resin. Recorded stories have come down to us from Greek historians like Herodotus (430 BC), Strabo (1), and others, although it is interesting to note that Pliny the Elder considered such stories to be fantasy.

Oral traditions (like those about flying snakes) that have survived to today, are largely independent of written sources, thus strengthening the argument that perhaps there is, or once was, a basis for the existence of such creatures. In fact, the author has spoken to local people in Dhofar who have personally known people who as late as 1987 saw creatures which they identified as flying snakes.

For example, just after the monsoon in 1987, a Dhofari man was walking at night to his village near Tawi Attair and was using a torch, when he spotted what he thought was a flying snake.

In 1985, another local man believed he saw six or seven flying snakes in a wadi 20 km east of Salalah. He said they were about 20 cm long and jumped 3 metres from tree to tree. He did not see any wings on them but he saw them jumping and making a noise similar to the buzz of a bee. One of this man’s friends had reportedly killed one of these animals a year earlier.

Some of the characteristics which are commonly believed about flying snakes are: they are about 30 cm long and live in trees; their head is a similar shape to a snake’s; they can fly or jump up to 10 metres from tree to tree; they are very dangerous; they sometimes jump onto the heads of unsuspecting passers-by. If they do they almost always inflict a fatal injury on the victim.

Local people do have other explanations. For example, there say that there are lizards which can jump several metres. However, these are not considered to be dangerous so this rules out them being confused with “flying snakes”.

(1) “The frankincense they procure by means of the gum styrax, which the Greeks obtain from the Phoenicians; this they burn, and thereby obtain the spice. For the trees which bear the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents, small in size, and of varied colours, whereof vast numbers hang about every tree. They are of the same kind as the serpents that invade Egypt; and there is nothing but the smoke of the styrax which will drive them from the trees. The Arabians say that the whole world would swarm with these serpents, if they were not kept in check… Such, then, is the way in which the Arabians obtain their frankincense”. (Strabo)

Possible explanations

  • The Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is a large, flying grasshopper of Africa and Asia that periodically forms massive swarms hundreds of miles long, causing enormous crop damage. Though each locust is only 2.25 inches long, such a swarm would leave behind a large number of dead insects.
  • The fossil bones of Spinosaurus, a large theropod dinosaur of the Late Cretaceous, 95 million years ago. The type specimen was first described in 1915 near Marsá Matruh, Egypt, on the Mediterranean coast. Its most striking feature is a set of dorsal spines that probably supported a sail-like membrane.

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