In the Alpine mountains of Austria, Bavaria, and Switzerland a strange animal is occasionally reported. It is described as a cylindrical, scaly animal with a blunt head and powerful jaws. Its legs are greatly reduced and some say it sports only a front pair of limbs. It grows to some 90 cm (3 feet) in length and is greatly feared on account of its aggressive nature. It is believed to have a bite so venomous that it can kill a cow and can even breath out poisonous gas. It is known variously as the Tatzelwurm (worm with feet), the Springwurm (jumping worm), and the Stollerwurm (tunnel worm).
The creature’s existence was excepted as fact in the Alps and it appeared in several books on Alpine natural history and hunting along side more familiar animals. Swiss naturalist Friedrich von Tschundi was convinced of the reality of the creature and wrote in 1861…
“In Bernese Oberland and the Jura the belief is widespread that there exists a sort of “cave worm” which is thick, 30 to 90 cm long and has two short legs ; it appears at the approach of storms after a long dry spell…
“In 1828 a peasant in the Solothurn canton found one in a dried-up marsh and put it aside intending to take it to professor Hugi. But in the meantime the crows ate half of it. The skeleton was taken to the town of Solothurn, were they could not decide what it was and sent it to Heidelburg-where all trace of it was lost”
In the 1930s Dr Gerhard Venzmer and Hans Fulcher collected the evidence of 60 witnesses. All agreed it was 30 to 60 cm (1 to 2 feet) long, cylindrical in shape with the tail ending abruptly. It had a large blunt head that grew directly into the body with no narrowing in the neck area. The eyes were large and the body scaled. It hissed like a snake.
There have been sightings further south in Europe as well. Similar creatures have been reported from France, Italy and Sicily. There has even been a report of what sounds very like a Tatzelwurm from Denmark in June 1973! Although most authorities have treated the Tatzelwurm as a mystery reptile others disagree. An Austrian schoolmaster who came across one in 1929 whilst exploring a cave on the Tempelmauer believed it to be a giant salamander.
“I started to look for the entrance to the cave. Suddenly I saw a snake like animal sprawled on the rotting foliage that covered the ground.. Its skin was almost white, not covered by scales but smooth. The head was flat and two very short feet on the fore part of the body were visible (….. ) “My” Tatzelwurm did not have large claws but short and atrophied looking feet; his length did not exceed 40 or 45 centimetres. Most probably the Tatzelwurm is a rare variety of salamander living in moist caves and only rarely coming to the light of day.”
There are aquatic amphibians with only two legs. The siren (Siren lcertina) of the south east U.S is one such creature. Others have a pallid hue, such as the blind cave dwelling olm (Proteus anguinus) of south eastern Europe. Both of these animals sport feathery external gills, a feature notably lacking in the schoolmaster’s description. The white skin and troglodyte existence does suggest that what this man saw was some unknown cave dwelling salamander.
However, my colleague, zoologist Richard Freeman has an even more extraordinary explanation. His theory all hinges around a remarkable photograph taken in 1924 by a Swiss Photographer called Balkin. He was photographing scenery around the Meiringen area when he took a snap of what he thought was a rotten log. As he pressed the shutter the stump sprang into life and revealed itself to be a large angry lizard. The alarmed man fled but later had the snap developed. It showed a blunt headed heavy scaled animal head on to the camera. “As soon as I saw the picture”, writes Richard, “it immediately brought to mind the Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri). Of course the photo may be a fake, nothing more than a carved model. But if it is genuine the resemblance to the lungfish is very striking.”
Lungfish (dipnoans) are a bizarre group of fish. Their air bladders are modified to act as lungs that allow them to gulp air. This is a distinct advantage in times of drought. The South American and African species can also aestivate in periods of hardship. The former burrows into mud tunnels the latter builds a “cocoon” of mud about itself. There are six species, four from Africa, one from South America, and one from Australia. The latter species bares a strong resemblance to the archaic lobe finned fish first crawled onto land in the late Devonian era (408 to 360 million years ago) to give rise to the amphibians.
All known lungfish are tropical but could there be a distant relative adapted for temperate climes? An amphibious, bulky fish with a powerful bite. Hibernating in winter and inhabiting remote pools and caves. The tubular body and thick scales giving it a reptilian appearance. Perhaps this kind spends more time on land like a mudskipper (Periophthalmus sp) and with better developed eyes. We will never know the for sure until someone takes up the challenge of solving this cryptozoological mystery which for those of us living in Europe at least is literally on our doorstep.