Category Archives: Amphibians and Reptiles

Scotia Illustrata: pre-industrial Scotland

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Scotia Illustrata: pre-industrial Scotland, is a postdoctoral research project run by recent Cardiff University postgraduate Lee Raye, starting on July 1st 2016.

This will be the first ever project to fully translate and comment upon a pre-Linnean Natural History from Britain.

Robert Sibbald’s Scotia Illustrata (1684) provides a full record of Scotland’s natural resources in the years before the Industrial Revolution.

The first phase of the project has been generously funded by the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Alice McCosh Trust.

Interested parties can find out more about the work, author and text by visiting the project website: www.robert-sibbald.co.uk.

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Leatherback turtles in the Orkney Islands

Species: Some cold turtles, seen off the coast of the Orkney Islands, probably leatherbacks (Demochelys coriacea), also some chilled-out pet tortoises (sp. unclear).

Source: Scotia Illustrata (Scotland Illustrated), a complete geography of Scotland written in early enlightenment Scotland by Robert Sibbald.

Date: First published 1684 CE.

Highlights: This blog post introduces, translates and comments what I believe to be the earliest record of a marine turtle (most probably a leatherback) from Britain. This record, from Robert Sibbald’s Scotia Illustrata has been overlooked by previous scholars because the book is only available in difficult Latin. It is a decade older, and more certain than the previous oldest record.

leatherback turtle bigger than himan

Photograph of leatherback turtle with Marian Garvie and other, unknown, taken by Steve Garvie, licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0.
You too can grow up this big and strong on a diet of Natural History and jellyfish.

 


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St Petroc vs. the dragon – worm

Species: One overgrown snake which grows into a dragon-worm.

Source: The ‘Life of St Petroc I’ a text in Latin probably written in Cornwall, perhaps at Bodmin Priory.

Date: The historical Petroc probably lived in the sixth century A.D. Our text was first written prior to 1177, most likely around the mid-eleventh century, although the only complete manuscript (Paris MS. Lat. 9989) only exists in sixteenth century transcript form. The story itself may well have been known orally before it was first included in the written life (Doble, 1965: 133-4; Orme, 2000: 214-15).

Highlights: Once upon a time an evil villain died. He had a snake pit like most evil villains and after he died no-one was being fed to the snakes (awww). They ate each other until one got so big it came out and turned into a dragon. It happens.

Oh yes, it happens. Grass snake  (Natrix natrix) photographed by Thomas Browne and shared under CC-BY 2.0 license)

Oh yes, it happens.
Grass snake (Natrix natrix) photographed by Thomas Browne and shared under CC-BY 2.0 license)

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Medieval snakes are not always so bad…

Three boys with spotty green snakes coiled around their necks

Part of the Vaughan coat-of-arms at Tretower Court, Brecon Beacons, south-east Wales.

Species: Generic snakey-snake, called an adder (Vipera berus) but has prey constricting habit like smooth snake (Coronella austriaca).

Source: The Vaughan family coat-of-arms and its descriptions (not as boring as it sounds, I promise!)

Date: c.1450 A.D.

Highlights: The Vaughan coat-of-arms shows three boys being strangled by snakes. This was inspired by the legend of a family member being born with a snake around his neck. Boring folklorists  c.1900 interpreted this as an #IHateSnakes moment. They are wrong, it was originally the opposite. The writings of Lewis Glyn Cothi suggest comparing someone to a snake was a compliment. Continue reading

The Lovers and Chameleons of Shakespeare

Looking at references to the chameleon in Shakespeare’s ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ can reveal some surprising things. Chameleons were once thought to live on nothing but air, and therefore make perfect metaphorical comparisons for those in unrequited love.

Species: Some kind of chameleon (Chamaeleonid sp.)
Source: ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’, perhaps Shakespeare’s first play.
Date: c.1589-91.
Highlights: Considering how often Shakespeare uses the semantic field of feasting to describe love, comparing people to chameleons (who were thought to never eat) was an especially effective insult…

Click below to read more.

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What happens when you cut a wyrm in half?

Image of worm and wyrm
Earthworm photographed by Jacopo Werther, licensed under CC-SA-BY 2.0. Hydra concept art from Dragon’s Dogma, a 2012 computer game. Display and discussion of this cover image comprises fair-use under the 1988 Licenses, Designs and Patents Act.

Species Mentioned: Folklore originally attached to various medieval fictional serpents but now attached (falsely) to all British earthworms.

Source: Most medieval Bestiaries.

Date: Bestiary tradition most popular in Britain c.1150-1450.

Highlights: The source attests that snakes can be chopped into pieces and still try to kill you like an ineffective cartoon supervillain. Many people in Britain sometimes still believe this about worms, the modern descendants of poisonous “wyrms” to this day. Are we really any less gullible than our predecessors?

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Toads, newts and snakes in ‘A Bawd’

toad

Photograph of a toad (B. bufo) by JKL-Foto, Licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0. Is this water clean or dirty?

Species mentioned: toads (?B. bufo; E. calamita?) snakes (?N. natrix?) and newts (?T. cristatus, L. vulgaris, L. helveticus?).

Source: ‘A Bawd’, a mock-sermon discussing bawdy (rude) people.

Date: 1630. Late for this blog but still centuries ahead of its time.

Highlights: John Taylor does not describe toads, newts and snakes as polluting the water they are in but rather as only being found in clean water. It is centuries before this fact is generally accepted, and even longer before the significance of amphibians and reptiles as bio-indicators is appreciated.

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