In ancient times scholars wrote up bestiaries which gave accounts of exotic animals. While these did contain some truths, they also contained many falsehoods. Alongside the striped horses and great cats of Africa you’ll also find creatures of legend. One of these was the basilisk.
The basilisk was said to be the King of all Serpents, with the power to kill with a single glance. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, described the basilisk thus:
‘It is a small snake, not more than twelve fingers in length. Yet it is so venomous, it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it, and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass, too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse, as well.’
It sounds like a formidable animal – I’m quite pleased that it turned out not to be real! But there are real basilisks around today – it’s true! They may not be able to kill with a single glance, nor are they venomous. But they do seem to have magical powers. They can actually walk on water. This has earned them the nickname ‘Jesus Lizards’.
Can they really walk on water? Yes they can – but there’s no magic involved, sadly. It’s all down to physics. Basilisks have large hind feet with scaly fringes on the toes. These are concealed on land but if a basilisk feels threatened it will run towards water, splay its toes wide and vastly increase the surface area of its feet. If it gets up a fast pace, a basilisk can run for up to 20 metres before it sinks – far enough away from any predators.
There are many fabulous creatures of legend but, in my opinion, there are equally wondrous animals out there in the real world. I do hope that you like reading about them here in Nature Matters.
If you do like reading about the natural world then you might also like our Nature quizzes. We have more than sixty of them and they’re all free to play. Have a look and see what other natural wonders you can discover today!
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