May 10, 2007
The Samoan Islands are located in Polynesia, in the south-central Pacific Ocean. Politically, they are now separated into Samoa and American Samoa. Samoa is comprised of the "twin" islands of Savai'i and 'Upolu. The eastern group of Tutuila, Ofu, Olosega, Ta'u, Rose Island, and Swains Island make up American Samoa.
The island nature of Polynesia means that reptiles are limited to those species which have good invasive capabilities. (Discounting, of course, marine visitors like sea turtles and sea snakes.) This means they are usually small, unobtrusive, and can take advantage of new environments. Lizards, in particular, are good stowaways and rafters. So, it is no surprise that small geckos (Gehyra, Hemidactylus, Lepidodactylus, Nactus) and skinks (Cryptoblepharus, Emoia, Lipinia) have found a home in the Samoan Islands (per the EMBL database).
Snakes are less likely to invade, but at least two species have managed to make a home on some of these islands. The Pacific tree boa, Candoia bibroni, reaches its eastern limit in American Samoa, where it is called gata. It is known from the islands of Ta'u, American Samoa, and Savai'i and 'Upolu, Samoa (Boulenger 1893; Steadman and Pregill 2004). Lever (2003) notes that the population on Ta'u is extremely melanistic. Lever suggests that while this population may be the result of natural colonization, it is possible they were originally brought to the island deliberately as clan totems or curios. These tree boas once inhabited Tutuila, as well (Steadman and Pregill 2004), but were eradicated, probably through the introduction of rats, cats, and other predators. There is speculation (Austin 2000) that the eastern population of C. bibroni (Loyalty Islands, Fiji, Samoans) may be a different species from the western population (Solomon Islands, Vanuatu).
A second species of snake known from the Samoans is the recently introduced Brahminy blind snake (Ramphotyphlops braminus) on Tutuila. This small earthworm-like snake is often introduced via imported plants, so is sometimes called the flowerpot snake. It was first noted on Tutuila in the 1990s (NPS).
I should point out that some online mentions of the python, Liasis mackloti, incorrectly note Samoa as a distribution locality, when they should be noting Semau, Indonesia.
One of the earliest mentions of snakes in the Samoan Islands is from a missionary account (Williams 1837):
Clearly, the terrestrial species here is Candoia. The "water-snakes" are various sea-snakes, and shouldn't be confused with freshwater water-snakes.
Candoia bibroni reaches four to six feet in length as an adult. Through much of its range, it is variable in coloration and pattern. It is also capable of changing hue in response to the environment and other conditions. That probably explains the next account (Steinberger 1874):
However, Steinberger goes on to mention another snake:
This same snake is noted again a few years later (Mulligan 1896):
Now, anyone who has paid attention to reports of lesser-known mystery animals from around the world will recognize the folkloric nature of the "crowing serpent." From Jamaica, South Africa, and other locations, native peoples claim that certain sounds, bleating in some areas and clucking in others, come from large dangerous serpents. For example, from Africa (Andersson 1856):
Of course, there is no attribution of a "crown" or "wattle" in the Samoan mystery snake, just the odd sounds. There is a natural tendency to ascribe unknown sounds to specific creatures even without seeing that animal make the sound. Birds, insects, and especially frogs and toads, can make very strange noises in the dark. I noted a similar situation in Cryptozoology: Science & Speculation, where anthropologist Ralph Bulmer (1968) found that the Karam people lumped several frog species' calls together under the same term, gwnm, while attributing a few frog calls to earthworms.
Could there be an unidentified snake on Savai'i? If we remove vocalizations from the picture (Karl Shuker has noted that some snakes do have limited capability for odd sounds, in any case), we really aren't left with enough of a picture of the snake (how big is "enormous"?) to make any real suggestions. There are only a handful of large snakes known for successfully island hopping to remote areas, and there is little biogeographic evidence that any species other than Candoia made it out to the central Pacific. If I had to stretch, there is the possibility of an early introduction of Boiga irregularis, which would not be happily met by most modern conservationists. I have not run across any modern reports, so cannot be certain there is anything left to investigate. It would of great interest to see any historical accounts that attempt to describe the Samoan crowing snake.
Besides the crowing snake, there is an additional mystery reptile for which I've seen only one early reference. Again, from Williams (1837), where he notes:
As noted previously, only small geckos and skinks are known from Samoa. There are no known varanids ("guanas") or other large lizards. I wish Williams had been more detailed, as there is little to go on. We do know, however, that gigantism occurs on some islands, and there are some larger geckos and skinks. (Not to mention the cryptozoological giant gecko of New Zealand...) Perhaps there is, or was, an endemic giant? There are several endemic birds in Samoa. One, the Samoan moorhen, has not been confirmed alive since 1873, according to BirdLife.org, with possible sightings in 1987 and 2003. Savai'i, though one of the largest islands in Polynesia (almost 700 square miles), is also one of the least populated (about 50,000 people). Cryptozoological research should next focus on speaking with Savai'i islanders to determine whether any such reptiles have been reported in modern times, and if so, which habitat (e.g., lowland rainforest, cloud forest, etc.) would be best targeted for field work.