The Cryptid Zoo: Howler Monkey Snake

The howler monkey snake is popularly described in folklore as an animal with the head of a howler monkey attached to the body of a boa constrictor. In more reliable sightings, witnesses describe an animal that is more likely to exist. It is a fur-covered mammal with a sleek, elongated body something like a very thin, snaky otter, complete with webbed paws. Its head resembles a monkey or a sloth, and its call is a noisy din that resembles an entire troop of angry howler monkeys. Natives agree that it is rarely seen. It is a shy, retiring creature that likes to stay at home in a den excavated with its entrance below water level, prefering lakes to rivers. It is most likely to be active on rainy nights. It may be found wallowing in mud holes or hiding in swamp vegetation. It lives in northeastern Brazil, right up to the Colombian border.

Beyond this, details about the animal become hazy as they shade away into obvious folklore. When the howler monkey snake is heard but not seen (which describes most encounters), it is said to produce its deafening calls from underneath the water's surface, a feat that doesn't seem likely. Its size is in dispute, with some claiming a truly gigantic size for this creature, but never more than eighteen feet long. The howler monkey snake is said to have a venomous bite that is fatal for anyone bitten. It swallows its victims, including humans, whole.

It is difficult to uncover a real animal amidst all the folklore, but, if we discount the absurd, we are left with clues that might point to a new species. It seems unlikely that the howler monkey snake is an actual snake. If it is a snake, we wouldn't know where to start, because many characteristics would need to be eliminated in order for us to come up with anything that wasn't biologically absurd. It is hard to imagine a snake that is covered in fur or has a head that is easily mistaken for a mammal's head.

If we decide to discard the folklore that attach a snake's body to a mammal's head, and then just look at the rest of the sightings, our job becomes easier. An aquatic mammal with a long, snake-like body is something entirely within the realm of the possible. In this case, we seem to have something like an otter. The details are too sketchy to zoom in on one possibility more than the rest, but we can examine the possibilities anyway.

We could assume that it is an otter or a close relative of the otter. A new species of otter would be exciting. It could also be a new species of mink. Both the mink and the otter are members of the mustelid (weasel) family. This family contains some of the world's most elongated, slinky, snake-like mammals. A third possibility is that it might be a species that is neither mink nor otter, but closely related to them. Just as the mink and the otter independently evolved an aquatic lifestyle, it might be that some other mustelid has evolved into an otter-like form in South America.

A fourth possibility is that it is an entirely different species of mammal that simply happened to evolve an otter-like form because of the forces of parallel evolution, a trick that has fooled scientists before, because it can create very similar-looking animals that are only distantly related. If this were true, the howler monkey snake could be something truly exotic. It could be a monkey or a sloth that has evolved into a look-alike to the otter, or just about anything. With the wealth of rainforest animals that could be possible ancestral forms, it would be impossible to say what family of mammals it might be from until we were able to examine a body or a live specimen in a lab.

You can find out more about the Howler Monkey Snake from the following sources:

Smith, Nigel. The Enchanted Amazon Rain Forest. Miami: University Press of Florida, 1996. Pages 73-75

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